Rick Reilly is one of the most famous and most accomplished sportswriters alive today. Voted 11 times the National Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, Reilly's back page column in Sports Illustrated essentially introduced me—and many sports fans in my generation—to the idea of opinionated sportswriting.
But Reilly's writing has not aged well in his transition from the print pages of SI to the online format of ESPN.com. With the advent of websites such as Bill Simmons' Grantland—which turned one year old in early June—and statistical analysis juggernauts such as FanGraphs, the 1,000-some occasionally clever and always cloying words that Reilly turns out every week are no longer vital or relevant enough to make it onto my RSS feed.
Sometimes, though, Reilly transcends ignorable and becomes ingratiating. Such was the case with one of his most recent columns, in which he reached into his bag of “topics to write about when there’s no ‘sports hero of the week’ story” and came up with “baseball is boring, right you guys?”
In his July 3 column, “Play Ball! Really, Play Ball!” Reilly laments the slow pace of America’s pastime and offers suggestions for how the highest paid athletes in the country might alter their performance to better suit his woeful attention span.
“Like a Swedish movie, it might have been decent if somebody had cut 90 minutes out of it,” writes Reilly of a game he willingly sat down to watch, “I'd rather have watched eyebrows grow.”
After offending both baseball fans and Swedish cinephiles in one stroke, he proceeds to offer a litany of complaints—from too many pick-off attempts to pitcher/catcher meetings at the mound—and a few half-facetious suggestions for rule changes that would mitigate his boredom.
For a diehard baseball fan such as myself, there is a lot to dislike about Reilly’s blockheaded analysis. Whether it’s for his apparent ignorance of the many TV-manufactured delays that plague the other major American sports, his disregard for the reasons behind many of baseball’s stoppages, or the sheer tiredness of his complaints (declaring that baseball is boring is about as controversial these days as saying that Nickelback is an awful band), it was tempting to fill this space with pointed attacks at Reilly’s maddening logic.
But then I realized, much to my chagrin, that Rick Reilly is right.
No, we don’t need rules to limit pick-off attempts and batting routines. But Reilly’s argument—that baseball is a painfully boring game—reflects an increasingly popular belief in our fast-paced, update-to-update, tweet-to-tweet society that baseball is simply too slow to watch. Is there an app for making baseball go faster? No? Then screw it, I guess.
I’m tired of feeling compelled to justify my fandom to people who think that anyone who likes baseball must have some sort of bizarro-world ADD—Attention Surplus Disorder?—or that they are just too dumb to follow “real” sports like football or basketball.
Well, I follow football and basketball (and hockey—who’s the real sports fan now?), but baseball is my true love, and I refuse to accept its new position as the runt of professional American sports (OK, hockey is still the runt, but only because belittling Canada is America’s second favorite pastime, just behind starting unwinnable ground wars in Asia). But the answer, as Reilly suggests, is not to make the game faster, but to change the way the game is presented on television, the format through which most people are introduced to the game. Major League Baseball must acknowledge that baseball does not provide the constant, fluid action that draws people to other sports and find a way to make the game engaging regardless. Besides ending the ludicrous blackout policy and making a concerted effort to broadcast more games to a national audience, here are a few improvements Major League Baseball could make to its current standard broadcast format that might give more people an incentive to invest their time and energy into the game and its players:
Make the third commentator a comedian. No, it didn’t work on Monday Night Football with Dennis Miller, but that doesn’t mean the idea was rotten at the core. People were turned off by Miller’s often mean-spirited rants that occasionally prevented Al Michaels from actually calling the game. There must be thousands of aspiring comedians who could riff on the idiosyncrasies of baseball (there are plenty) for two hours without obstructing the play-by-play. Currently, channel flippers might not find a reason to stay on a game for more than a few pitches, but give them a laugh or two and maybe they'll stick around for the inning. And the comedians have an incentive to bring the funny—they get their name out there and entertain bored audiences in the process. Hi, two birds? Meet my big, hilarious stone.
Fresh perspectives—literally. There’s nothing wrong with the standard, over-the-pitcher’s-shoulder camera angle, or the wide-out view of the field when a ball is put in play. But these traditional angles mute the insane level of skill necessary to compete in the MLB. I’m tired of hearing about nonathletic baseball players from people who haven’t really thought about how ridiculously difficult it is to hit (or throw) a 95 mph baseball. I’d love to see a catcher-cam used with regularity to showcase (arguably) the most technically difficult thing to do in professional sports, or a low-angle outfield camera to show just how “routine” it is to locate and catch a sky-high fly ball. Slam dunks and touchdown catches have captured America’s collective heart—they need to see why diving catches and home runs are just as worthy of their affection.
Mic the players, not the drunks. There are some parts of seeing a live game that you don’t want to take home with you. Listening to drunk bros heckle the away players is one of those things. I’d rather hear what’s happening on the field—the infield chatter, conversations at first base, etc. The salty language that sometimes comes out on the field is nothing that careful editing and some discretion can’t iron out, and the resulting sound bites would provide both insight and entertainment to a game that can be alienating to the casual fan.
Baseball is a slow game in a fast world. But slow doesn’t have to mean boring, if they use the inherently slower pace to their advantage. If MLB can show that it is willing to laugh at itself, while also showcasing the high level of play to a greater degree and connecting the fans to the players like never before, it will quiet the haters and turn casual fans into dedicated fans.
And for those of us who are already all-in? I’d be content just to see Rick Reilly eat his words.