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Baseball Must Adapt to Become America's Pastime Once Again

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Baseball Must Adapt to Become America's Pastime Once Again
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Baseball's golden era has long passed. Once a game that resonated in the national pathos and ethos alike, baseball has fallen from its pedestal, with football racing out ahead to claim the mantle of America's favorite pastime.

When you look at the figures Plunkett Research has compiled, the NFL now stands at the head of the pack. MLB teams are worth half as much on average as their NFL counterparts. In terms of total league revenue, MLB is second, trailing the NFL's $9.0 billion in earnings by $1.8 billion.

No matter how you slice it, America's game takes place on the gridiron now, not the diamond.

But this is not about football, nor is it about how baseball fell. This is not about the strike in 1994 or the Mitchell Report in 2007 or anything in between. This is about where Major League Baseball is right now in 2012, and where it is going from here.

The league today is bogged down by its backward-thinking ways. The games last forever, and the season effectively ends in July for about half the league's teams even though they play out their schedule through September.

We are here neither to bury baseball nor to praise it. The MLB certainly has its woes, and we must look forward rather than back in order to find the requisite aids.

It is not clear whether Joe West was trying to shine a light on forward thinking or simply on himself when he called a 2010 series of Yankees-Red Sox games "a disgrace to baseball" after they each lasted in the ballpark of four hours.

Hampton Stevens of The Atlantic not only strongly agreed with West, but he pointed out that the league has the measures to fix this problem already on the books.

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In his reaction, Stevens points out that MLB Rule 8.04 sets a 12-second time limit between pitches when the bases are empty, with a penalty of a ball being called whenever a pitcher exceeds the limit. He goes on to say that the actual average time between pitches is 27 seconds.

This is a significant piece of data because, as J-Doug of Beyond the Boxscore points out, baseball games are not as long as people think. "Moreover, it remains true that—contrary to popular myth—the typical Major League Baseball game does not exceed three hours," J-Doug explains. "In 2010, the mean nine-inning regular season game averaged 2:50. Please tell your friends."

So, if MLB games are, in fact, shorter than NFL games (which consistently run over three hours on average, according to USA Today's Michael McCarthy), the problem cannot be solved simply by making games shorter, but rather faster.

In that regard, Rule 8.04 could ultimately prove to be the necessary solution.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, there are about 286 pitches per game. Even if it were a 20-second limit, a happy medium between the rule as written and current game conditions, that would cut off seven seconds per pitch from the game time. 

There is no readily available figure on how many pitches are thrown per game with the bases empty, but if a conservative estimate of 130 pitches were held to that 20-second limit, the difference would add up to just over 15 minutes of dead time being cut from the average game.

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The great sportswriter Roger Kahn once said of baseball, “The rhythms of the game are so similar to the patterns of American life.  Periods of leisure, interrupted by bursts of frantic activity.” As American life moves faster and faster, baseball must cater to its potential fans and speed up in turn.

With the enforcement of Rule 8.04, baseball will trim the dead periods between pitches that cause the game to drag. Perhaps this change could even create an opening to fully implement instant replay, allowing baseball to take yet another step into the 21st Century.

But all the work to make the game faster and more exciting will be for naught if a chunk of the schedule is dismissed as unimportant.

With only a third of all teams advancing to the postseason, nearly half the league is out of the hunt before the playoff push kicks into gear. On top of that, the gravity of each game does not mount until late August at the earliest, so the games in April and May are merely prelude in the emotional arc of the MLB season.

However, significantly reducing the amount of games in a season is not a feasible option. We can look forward all we want, but we cannot ignore the connection baseball has to its stats. The next .400 season will not have the same meaning if it is done in a fraction of the games Ted Williams played when he last did it.

So it would be beneficial to cut the season from 162 games down to 154, like it was prior to 1962, and possibly get even closer to a 120-game regular season schedule. Such a change would be too radical, however. There must be some other way to make every game count.

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The only answer here is to increase parity between teams, and the only way to do that is through salary restrictions.

While the NFL, NBA, and NHL all have both a salary cap and a salary floor, the MLB has no rules on team spending. This creates situations in which the New York Yankees outspend the San Diego Padres by $142 million, according to USA Today. The Detroit Tigers, who have the fifth-highest payroll in the league this season, are only spending $132 million.

Exceptions do pop up in the lawless MLB spending landscape, like the Moneyball A's capturing the nation's attention with their budgeted success and the 2010 Cubs winning just 75 games with the third-highest payroll in the league. But ultimately, the rich teams beat the poor teams, and the outliers regress the mean.

But even salary restrictions cannot solve everything. The Yankees will still operate with as large a payroll as possible, and the A's will still hover just above the salary floor. Financial disparities will be limited, but the haves will still have a marked advantage over the have nots.

In order to solve this, Bud Selig and the MLB must take a page out of Roger Goodell's playbook and implement revenue sharing in the style of the NFL system.

The MLB already has some revenue sharing in place, and David Jacobson of CBS News was optimistic in 2008 that each team would share 31% of their revenue.

Jacobson is correct that the Marlins could be leading their division with a team paid less than Alex Rodriguez. But the fact remains that, from 2008-2011, only a quarter of the 32 teams to make the playoffs ranked in the bottom half of the league in payroll.

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This is why 60 Minutes profiles Goodell on how his league could be so financially successful when 80% of revenue is shared. The NFL has realized that it has come a long way since the olden days of far-flung franchises clawing for whatever they could get. One team's disgraceful play dilutes another's beautiful execution, and the league is only as strong as its weakest link.

What Selig and the MLB owners must learn is what Goodell and the NFL have been doing for years: for the good of the richest teams, the poorest must be able to compete.

With more teams playing more meaningful games, the league would have a greater ability to extend its brand to a generation of potential fans that has not yet embraced the game.

In fact, a portion of shared revenue ought to go towards funding little league baseball, especially in areas where bats and gloves are luxuries and fields are few and far between. Growing the game at its youngest levels will not only beget more fans tomorrow, but also more players.

The MLB would feature faster, more exciting games between more competitively-balanced teams that more people would enjoy. But it is important to remember that all that has changed here is style, not substance. There are still four bases, nine innings, and three strikes to an out. This is still baseball.

Joel Oppenheimer said in The Little Red Book of Baseball Wisdom that the game "makes it easy for the generations to talk to one another," and he was not wrong. Baseball has as rich a heritage as any American institution, but some of what was romantic in the days of Mantle and Mays is now dated in the time of Hamilton and Halladay.

In 2012, baseball itself does not have to change. It just needs to teach this generation to speak its language.

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