Should baseball coddle the distraction generation?

One of the many pleasures of being an usher for a Major League Baseball team is you get a really great feel for the state of the game, something that no sportswriter can because they don’t get a good look at nor talk to the people who pay for their seats.

We’re only a month into the season and yet it’s hard to ignore the troubling signs for the game’s future.

Samantha Power, a Harvard professor, writes in the Washington Post today that baseball need only keep doing what it’s doing, and stop trying to cater to the distraction generation. The game needs to embrace “the very qualities that those in a hurry often shun: patience, concentration, and the alluring sense of possibility bounded not by a clock but simply by performance (and getting that last out).”

She’s not wrong. Putting a clock on pitchers or limiting trips to the mound might make the game seem shorter, but that’s all being undone — at least with the local nine — by poor pitching, bumbling fielding and feeble hitting. Nothing can make bad baseball feel satisfying.

I try to catch batting practice before the gates open and grab a ball or two to give to kids and I had one yesterday (courtesy of a smooth as silk catch of a bomb into the bleachers, which I snagged in one motion with my hat, without unimpressing the players who watched by letting on that it hit my thumb first. And it hurt).

Last night, only one kid with a baseball glove stepped in the elevator I was in charge of.

“If you don’t get a ball tonight,” I said on the way to the Terrace Level, “come see me after the game.” I didn’t see him again. I took the ball home. Maybe there’ll be more opportunities tonight.

Clearly, not every kid takes the elevator to the upper deck. But on Sunday, while working the thirdbase dugout seats, a woman lamented that her son was disinterested in the view from the second row. And, sure enough, there he was, under a blanket in the bright sunshine, the better to see the smartphone. He was 11.

A walk around the ballpark last night yielded a man — I’d guess in his 20s — sitting against a wall, the phone plugged into an outlet, the attempted comeback by the local heroes underway nearby to his disinterest.

To be sure, there are still plenty of kids at the park looking for autographs before gametime, so it wasn’t a great help to the future of the game when not a single Cincinnati Red bothered to accommodate them on Sunday.

Sportswriters and columnists have led the call for speeding up the game, but they view it from a different lens. They’re at work; they want to go home.

Perhaps Power is right and the anecdotes of the distracted generation are mere outliers. Those who demand instant gratification need not be coddled by a sport where “triumph and heartbreak do not announce themselves” ahead of time.

Her barometer on the game’s future is her son — age 8 — who she said was filled with rage when she told him earlier this year that a split-squad, spring training game didn’t matter.

“It is baseball,” he said. “Everything matters.”

Especially 8-year-old kids.

  • Nato Coles

    I know I’ve said it here before, perhaps phrased a little differently, but the most immediate way to improve the game (baseball is my favorite sport and whatever’s in second place ain’t close) would be to create more action on the field. In other words: more balls in play and more batted-ball contact! Walks help win games but they aren’t exciting, and while a crucial game-changing strikeout can be as cool as anything in a game, it’s still not crack-of-bat followed by diving stop/leaping catch cool. I’m not sure how to go about making this happen – perhaps raise the lower part of the strike zone? – but I think all the talk about games being too long is misguided because 3.5 hour games with drama and lead changes are great! And while pace of play is an issue to be sure, that is sort of being addressed with limiting mound visits and a few other things. And really, the elephant in the room with pace of play is pitching changes/bullpen use, and that won’t be touched until at least the next CBA. So: more balls in play, more batted balls, and that’s the game of baseball that makes kids put down their phones and adults like me spend (even) more time at the ballpark!

    Oh, and a fiery, competitive Twins team wouldn’t hurt. I miss Buxton…

    • Saturday’s game was crisply and professionally played; it was great fun to watch. Friday night’s game was about the worst baseball I’ve ever seen. It was pure torture.

      • John

        So, is there an issue with consistency in the quality of the games then?

        It’s one thing to bat 0.333 – it’s a whole different thing if only 0.500 of your games are worth the time and effort commitment.

        • Rob

          Yes! An individual player’s stats tell us nothing about whether his/her team is crappy or not.

          • Postal Customer

            RBIs could be indicative of team strength.

          • Rob

            Not based on just one player’s stats.

          • Postal Customer

            You could look at OPS or BA vs RBIs. If the first two are high but RBIs low, maybe the rest of the team stinks.

          • John

            I’m not talking about a crappy team (or player)- I’m talking about a crappy game. Bob listed two consecutive games – one was great, one was awful. Statistically, not a valid comparison, but raised the question for me.

            It’s expensive to watch MLB baseball in person. If I’m going to invest my recreational time and money on something, I like it to feel like it has a good payoff. What Bob is describing (for any number of reasons, some of which are armchair umpired above), is that there’s a real gamble when you go to a game on whether it’s worth it or not. I’m not much of a gambler.

            Full disclosure: I have been to one game at Target Field since it opened, and my ticket was free.

          • Nobody should go to a game if they don’t enjoy going to a game. That make baseball soccer (joke).

            Nobody, really, should do ANYTHING that involves wondering when you can get out of there.

          • wjc

            At least a proper football game is over in under 2 hours. Football is beautiful. Constant activity. And in Europe you have promotion and relegation, which can make many end-of-season games marvelous to watch. Not all games (matches / fixtures) are great to watch, but I’d wager that a higher percentage are, compared with baseball or American football.

          • Jeff

            If you are selective the Twins games are a bargain. I get the cheap seats off Stub Hub and unless it’s a big game usually they are less than $15. You can stand and watch at a lot of great locations or sneak into the lower tier (don’t tell Bob). Sure if you load up on concessions and booze then it can become a little costly.

        • X.A. Smith

          One interesting thing that may be indicative of something: This April, there were more strikeouts than hits in MLB, for the first time since….ever.

      • Nato Coles

        I took off work for tomorrow’s (Wednesday’s) game. Crossing my fingers that Kyle Gibson really has turned over a new leaf. Bob, if the plebes are allowed this info… will you be working and where?

        • Gary F

          Bob, can we buy you a pop, or soda, if run into you at a game?

          • Nope. Not allowed to eat or drink in the view of any fans. But we can certainly chat.

          • Gary F

            Anyone ask you for an autograph yet?

          • I move in secrecy.

          • Gary F

            And being a radio guy, unless they hear you talk, you are just another face in the crowd.

          • Jeff

            Asking this for a “friend”. So, how vigilant are the ushers required to be at making sure people don’t sneak into a section they don’t belong in?

          • EXTREMELY vigilant.

            It’s pretty difficult to to sneak down into the dugout box seats, for example. Maybe less so — because of the volume of people… around 114, 115, but still likely you’re going to get asked for tickets every time you come back with a beer.

            229, 230? Maybe not quite the same.

          • Jeff

            Thanks, I’ll let my friend know.

    • Rob

      IMHO, if a team wants to give an intentional walk to a batter, it’s pointless to engage in the ritual of having the batter stand at the plate while the pitcher throws the ball ten feet to the batter’s side. Just tell the head ump that you aren’t going to throw to the batter, and have the ump give the O.K. to put the player on base.

      • Jeff C.

        No way! If so, you won’t get to see smart players taking advantage of the other team’s stupidity/carelessness.

      • Pssst: That was put into effect this season.

        • Rob

          Shows you how often I attend or watch games these days. (Gives self a dope slap) Not saying that the slow pace is what caused my interest to drop off. Oh, wait – yes I am

          And the Twins’ poor start isn’t likely to lure me into attending/watching any time soon

          • Joseph

            I didn’t know that either 😛
            Major rule changes and only die-hard fans know about it? Shows how culturally relevant pro-baseball has become.

    • LieutenantLefse

      “More balls in play” like multi-ball in pinball? Now that would spice things up.

    • boB from WA

      This is the same argument being played out in hockey right now – not enough scoring! and so the powers to be keep trying their tweeks in order to get a more “entertaining” product out to the consumer. Is it possible to get back to where the game(s) were before? I don’t know.

      • I loved the NHL of the ’70s. That was before they let goalies become the Michelan man

      • Joseph

        At least NHL hockey has the violence of the sport to keep things lively, and the rapid amount of puck steals or shots on goal (even if they don’t score) to keep the intensity up. Baseball just doesn’t have the drama/intensity in general, which makes a slow game even slower.

    • wjc

      Ahem! 3.5-hour games are horrible! In any sport.

      • Where is it you need to get to in such a hurry?

        • wjc

          My life!

          But seriously, what fraction of a 3.5-hour ballgame is interesting? 3.8%? No thanks.

          Also, just curious, has MLB made the time between innings longer for more TV ads over the last 40 years? Or does it just seem like that is the case?

          • It’s 2:05 now. They stuck a clock on that, too.

          • wjc

            I’ll have to put a clock on that. It seems longer. Or the ads are shorter to also appeal to the attention deficient.

  • Gary F

    I went to the see the local 9 play on Sunday. I didn’t even think of it when getting tickets, but I was on the first base line about two sections down from the evil extended netting. I saw a few kids with mitts whose parents bought seats behind the netting. Yes, still possible for a foul ball, but much less. I will have to think again before buying the good seats. Because of the netting, very few players wander down the line long enough to give the kids autographs.

    So, if you are bringing kids, don’t buy seats behind the netting.

    And, parents/grandparents, get the scorecard out and teach your kid to score the game.

    • dukepowell

      The netting stops the dangerous line drives hit sharply into the stands. It does not hinder the pop-up fouls.

      • Gary F

        I wont be buying seats in that area any more.

  • Joe

    Should baseball try to get people under 40 interested?

    Yes, if it wants to maintain it’s relevancy. But if it wants to go the way of boxing, keep doing your thing.

    • People under 40 are interested; just look at the organized youth leagues every Saturday morning.

      • Postal Customer

        At my daughter’s softball games, it’s not 45 seconds between pitches.

        • Rob

          Right? And just because kids like to play ball, doesn’t mean they want to sit, for what can seem like an eternity, at an MLB game.

          • Postal Customer

            I would rather go to her softball game than an MLB game any old day. I see hilarious, entertaining things at her games. I get to cheer for someone I love. I can sit ten feet away from home plate. There is almost no spitting or crotch-grabbing. And there is no bloody advertising.

      • Joseph

        “She’s not wrong. Putting a clock on pitchers or limiting trips to the mound might make the game seem shorter, but that’s all being undone — at least with the local nine — by poor pitching, bumbling fielding and feeble hitting. Nothing can make bad baseball feel satisfying.”

        I disagree with this quote, and generally agree with Joe, Dave and Onan above…. the game takes way too long, and when it is “played well” — that is when it is the most boring of all! Baseball games devolve into a pitching duel, pitcher vs pitcher, with almost no hits, and generally mostly strikes. At a Twin’s game (I sometimes go, but only once or twice a summer at most if my friends really really want to go) the only time I look up from my phone/book/talking to friends is when I hear the crack of the bat — since it means something actually happened. Otherwise there is no point in looking at the scoreboard, let alone the game, since you just know it is a pitching duel.

        When the game is “played poorly”, that’s when baseball is actually interesting and somewhat fun to watch! The St. Paul Saints games are actually somewhat entertaining (both for the in-between-innings-shenanigans, and the actual playing of baseball) since there is actually hitting, catching and running involved. I’m a millennial and don’t particularly enjoy watching pro-sports, but especially baseball and golf. Both are super boring. Playing them with friends? That is fun. Like Dave and Bob H. say, just because kids (or people) enjoy playing a sport, doesn’t mean they will enjoy watching a sport. And like Joe said above, I’m pretty sure baseball is going the way of boxing. (Heck, even growing up in elementary school, kids wanted to football and basketball stars or race car drivers — only one or two kids wanted to be baseball players. I did have one classmate actually make it to the NBA though! Michael Muscala, #31 with the Atlanta Hawks.)

        • The flaw in your assertion is you equate a well played game of baseball with a pitcher’s duel.

          Here’s the thing: Last year’s World Series was spectacular well played baseball. It encompassed everything fans said they wanted… ball in play… offense…great pitching.

          All the games went long.

          The length of the games isn’t the issue and it’s worth remembering you’re not REQUIRED to stay until the end of the game.

          There’s nothing interesting about a poorly played game as the images of Friday night’s crowd shows. It was brutally abysmal. A grand total of 24 runs were scored.

          What fans want is not really about the length of the game; they want a ROI for their investment of time no matter how long it is.

          • Joseph

            If I want to feel like I didn’t waste my money on an expensive ticket (relativly expensive, I know — it costed more than a movie ticket last time I went, and we got upper deck seats under the giant roof in the nosebleeds) then I’m going to stay. Unless its a blowout by the 7th inning or later 😛 So I guess I’ll agree on the ROI for the time/money investment. But also, how are people to know ahead of time if the game will be played “poorly” and have 24 runs, versus “a well played game” comprised of pitchers dueling? If people knew there was going to be large scores on the board and lots of action, I think more people would show up. Word has gotten out that the Twin’s are terrible (like usual) and people who are casual fans know that the odds are it will be a pitchers’ duel of a game. (Last game being the exception. Like when a meteorologist says there is only a 10% chance of rain, and it actually does rain that day.)

            Have there been any comparisons of Twin’s vs. SP Saints home game attendance? Selling out the stadium? Or even staying through the game to the end? (Using the Twins as a loose proxy for “good” baseball, and the SPS as a loose proxy for “bad” baseball.)

            And last year’s World Series didn’t have a team trying to break a historic curse…so no real reason to watch unless you were either a die-hard fan of the sport, or a fan of one of the teams. (As is the case most years for the World Series.)

          • Jeff

            I’ve been to my share of boring games, but also a lot of thrilling
            and interesting ones. I don’t know how in any sport you can predict “a well played game”. There are some indicators like if the teams have similar records or quality of the pitchers. If an over-hyped Vikings team is losing by say 38-7 I don’t think that’s very interesting either. The interesting part of baseball is also understanding the game, it’s nuances and knowing the players.

            I think rather than try to shorten the games, I’ve heard tell of shortening the season and adding a round-robin World Series tournament. Also they play too many games inside their division, I’d like to see other teams more often.

  • Mike Worcester

    In terms of the broader question — are pro sports in general struggling attracting the “distraction generation”? I see lots of phones out at pretty much any sporting event I attend by folks of many ages (granted it’s not *that* many I attend, but I still see it).

    P.S. — Yes the Twins are in tough straights right now, but the solutions are another discussion 🙂

    • BJ

      At Minnesota United games, I have mine out but it moves so fast I usually am taking a video to post later. No time to browse or chat with anyone.

    • X.A. Smith

      People have their phones out at games because they have their phones out everywhere. Restaurants have a harder time flipping tables. You can’t walk through a crowded store because people park themselves in the aisle and are looking at their phone instead of sharing the space. I think relying on cell phone use as a barometer for interest in a game is tenuous. In every audience there are going to be a good percentage who are not there of their own volition, because people get dragged to things. Kids may or may not be interested.

  • Postal Customer

    The average game is now more than 3hrs 5min. That’s up from about 2hrs 40min when I was obsessed with baseball in the late 80s.

    That is a fact. This is not due to the “distraction generation.”

    Pitchers take too long. Batters take too long. Too many pitching changes. Too many reviewed plays. Too many commercials between innings. Too much jingoistic ceremonial crap.

    None of this is the fault of an 8-year-old with a cell phone. Frankly what kid would want to sit there and stare at nothing happening for about 90% of the time?

    And since there is so much time between pitches, TV producers have resorted to things like dull inning-long interviews with players. And shots of players in the dugout spitting into cups. Honestly, the Angels/Yankees game the other night — they kept showing the Angels’ pitcher/DH spitting into a cup. They wouldn’t cut away from it. It was disgusting. Why would I want to watch that? The telecasts have gotten far more annoying.

    • jwest8

      I am adult who has no desire to sit and stare at nothing happening for 90% of the time. Watching paint dry is more satisfying. Before cell phones enterprising people brought books to read during the dead time.
      As for the spitting, enough said. It is disgusting and even worse than watching nothing happening.

    • Joseph

      MLB games are super looooooong 😛
      How long are St. Paul Saints games? Those don’t seem as long (although maybe I’m having more fun, so time flies faster.)

  • dukepowell

    Seldom have I had the opportunity to agree with Samantha Power.

    Taking control of the game from the players, managers and umpires and handing things over to instant replay is also a great sin.

    • Yes. The way instant replay has been used for such things as holding a tag on a guy who just stole second (and clearly so), because he momentarily left the base in the process of standing up was not what instant replay was supposed to do.

      And, really, the ONLY reason we have instant replay is because of one play in one single game in 2010, imho.

      • dukepowell

        Yes, that was the last straw.

        The thing is that the umpire is part of the game. As much as the manager and the player, the umpire can make mistakes. It is the human element of sport. To attempt to perfect the performance of fallible humans is a heresy.

  • I’ll take a Saints game any time…

    • Brian Simon

      I don’t care about the game at all, yet share your view. I’ve enjoyed Saints games, and even bought my own ticket, which I’ve never done for a Twins game.

      • I used to go to them when they were at the old Midway stadium. The games went by pretty quickly and the beer was good…

        /Got to see Darryl Strawberry launch a HR that seemed to burn up on re-entry.

  • Jared

    I can’t imagine speeding up the game will change the number of people staring at their screens. I had season tickets this year for the Timberwolves (first and last year, hurray for setting prices before the off season). I constantly saw kids and adults tune out for the majority of the game while playing games, checking social media, or even watching highlights from other basketball games. It didn’t matter how close or exciting the games were, they just weren’t into it. I don’t see how baseball can ever “feel as fast” as basketball, so if basketball doesn’t cut it for some people why bother changing for them?

  • Jack Ungerleider

    I think by the end of the season the mound visit rule will be history. Based on what I’ve seen so far it has slowed the pace of play and extended innings. Watching portions of the last 3 games on FSN there were multiple times that a catcher would have walked the ball to the mound, calmed down the pitcher and he would have found the strike zone. Or maybe the pitching coach would have come out told the pitcher is was tipping his pitches and improved his performance. In a couple of cases you could see the pitcher struggling but they kept at it because the stupid (yes that’s judgmental) rule would penalize the team for trying to speed things up by having the pitcher throw more strikes. One more thing, what happens when the ump takes a foul ball off the mask. In the past he would hand a ball to the catcher who would walk it out to the mound, say a few things to the pitcher and walk back. That little break would give the ump a chance to recover from having his bell rung. Now that won’t happen, it would have to be counted as a mound visit.

  • Paul Drake

    I’ll just watch Brockmire if I want to see baseball.

  • asiljoy

    I was at Sunday’s game behind the netting with my 4 year old son. He wears ear muffs because the screaming hurts his ears, but he dutifully sat on his knees with glove at attention calling balls/strikes for every pitch. He LOVES it. He hasn’t become cynical yet, he couldn’t tell that the players clearly could give a crap about winning or not. For me, that’s what makes it hard to watch. Why should I care if you don’t?