There’s a neat pattern that plays out a couple of times a year. It goes like this:
- MLB meets and, included among the many topics of discussion, is pace-of-play;
- MLB makes some non-committal noises about some minor rules changes which may improve pace-of-play;
- The media — almost always ESPN and their multiple personalities on multiple platforms needing to feed the maw of a 24/7 sports news monster — goes far beyond the minor rules changes being discussed and talks about things like seven inning games;
- Since ESPN occupies such a prominent position in the sports media landscape, this maw-feeding leads to the rest of the media weighing in on the agenda ESPN set.
It happened last July. It’s happening again, kicked off by Rob Manfred’s comments the other day. If you’re curious about the latest iteration of it, seek out Jayson Stark and Karl Ravech’s Twitter feeds this morning. Or, if you’re into such things, go check out the Mike and Mike show, which is doing that thing where they pretend to care about baseball 2-3 times a year.
It’s no accident that this stuff becomes a big topic of conversation when it does. It happens during the dog days, after the All-Star Game and before the trade deadline or the time when pennant races get into gear. It happens now, before spring training and after the Super Bowl, when sports news is at its annual nadir (note: it’s the same week the SI Swimsuit Issue comes out too, which was itself designed to fill pages when sports news could not). I would bet my children that somewhere an ESPN editor or producer decided that, as a company, that’s what would be on the agenda this week, all hooked on the tiniest bit of news about baseball considering, maybe, implementing an automatic intentional walk.
Yes, pace-of-play and game length is an issue MLB is concerned with and yes it’s a topic worth discussing. But don’t get sucked into the ESPN-led debates about this. Keep an eye on who is setting the terms of the discussion and whether those terms bear any relationship with what is actually being considered by Major League Baseball. When you see an article or hear a teaser for a radio segment which goes “should baseball games be seven innings long?!” know that the idea was invented by pundits to fill air time and give it your attention accordingly.