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Seven Innings

Visiting a minor-league baseball city last week, I concluded the day’s business in time to go to the ballpark. Because the previous night’s game had been rained out, I was treated to a doubleheader. Doubleheader games in the minor leagues are scheduled for seven innings. This has been the practice in the minors for as long as I can remember.

As I watched these contests unfold, I found, to my astonishment, that my interest was actually heightened by the fact that the issue would be settled in seven innings instead of the usual nine. The home team won both games, 11-7 and 4-3. Each lasted about two and a half hours. I enjoyed myself tremendously.

I’m the sort of person the press has labeled (pejoratively) a baseball “traditionalist” or “purist.” I’ve deplored the myriad ways in which the game has been altered in the past two decades. After this most recent experience, however, I’m wondering whether baseball might, at this point in its history, be improved by changing the duration of a standard game from nine innings to seven.

What I most desire to see, of course, is a fast-paced game of nine innings. That has ceased to be a reasonable expectation. Today’s game is played at one of two paces, slow and slower. Although there are many reasons for this, the phenomenon owes its existence primarily to the fact that batters are allowed to step out of the box after every pitch, and most of them elect to do so. In 21st century baseball, the ratio of action to standing around is more lopsided than it has ever been.

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Games would reach a speedier conclusion. The average nine-inning game takes three hours to complete, but many fans have had enough long before this. They begin to leave the park in the seventh and eighth innings, even when the score is tied.

The lost innings would be those that are currently pitched by the teams’ worst pitchers. Most clubs today carry 12 pitchers (Arizona has 13). The 10th, 11th, and 12th pitchers are always guys who can’t get major league hitters out consistently, so they bob up and down from the Triple-A farm clubs. The best relief pitchers (the “closers” and “setup men”) usually work just one inning per appearance. Starters are not expected to pitch more than six or seven innings.

Although there is no evidence to support the belief that pitch counts prevent sore arms, modern management subscribes to it rigidly. Starters are treated by management as weak sisters who are incapable of throwing 100 pitches more frequently than every five days. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because coaches don’t attempt to build stamina in young arms, pitchers arrive in the majors without stamina. This state of affairs is not likely to change any time soon.

Seven-inning games would be contested with the teams’ best pitchers. The starters and the best relief pitchers would maintain their current workload, while the dubious services of middle-inning nibblers who start each batter 2-and-0 and try fans’ patience to the breaking point would no longer be necessary.

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You’d break with tradition. But I would argue that the way the game is played today already represents a significant break with tradition.

“Counting stats” would be lessened. With batters’ plate appearances reduced by about 20%, they’d no longer have the opportunity to break single-season offensive records. But with the exception of the home run record, no one has been doing that anyway. It has been decades since anyone mounted a significant challenge to the single season records for hits, runs scored, runs batted in, doubles, triples, or stolen bases. And Barry Bonds’ single-season home run record looks safe, too, if baseball is serious on cracking down on steroids.

Baseball fans have already begun to measure batting prowess in terms of efficiency per plate appearance, with on-base average and slugging average joining batting average in the popular consciousness. These measurements would be unaffected by a switch to seven-inning games.

In my lifetime the sport of boxing has reduced its championship distance from fifteen rounds to ten. Purists (I among them) protested when this happened, but what was lost was mainly the clinching, clutching, and grabbing of exhausted men. No one now advocates a return to fifteen-round bouts.

Given the way that baseball is played today at all levels, I believe that seven innings are enough. I don’t believe that suspense and drama, the game’s best features, would be diminished, and they might be intensified. I think fans would enjoy these games more, and they’d stay to the last out.

I am well aware that this suggestion is far too radical to be considered for a microsecond by the panjandrums of baseball. But what do you think?

Ross Thrasher: I think it's a great idea for all the reasons you have cited. It would be nice to see a few more complete games from starting pitchers, and a bit more strategy with pinch-hitters and bench players, which has been all but lost with those 12-man pitching staffs.

Mike Lasalandra: Sounds like a pretty good idea, so it will never even be considered.

Bob Clinton: From a fan's standpoint it makes a lot of sense. From the standpoint of big business, it would reduce advertising $$$, not to mention the amount of beer they'd sell at the stadium. Your point about the less-than-talented middle relief "nibblers" is dead on (speaking as a Red Sox fan often "treated" to the adventure that is Alan Embree).

Paul Jenkins: About 10 years ago the tennis tour decided to put a clock on players, making them serve within 30 seconds (it might be 20, I can’t recall right now) of completing the last point. This eliminated the stalling tactics of tired players. I like the seven-inning idea, but I don’t think the powers that be would buy into it. Too much money would be lost this way—that would be their reasoning. So I would suggest having the umpire put a clock on the batters (or pitchers, for that matter) that would force them to be ready for the next pitch within (15? 20?) seconds of the last one. Not sure what the penalty for tardiness would be. Add a strike to the count for batter tardiness, a ball for pitcher tardiness? In tennis, a warning is issued, then the second offense results in a point penalty. One of the umpire’s jobs, after all, is to keep the game moving. I think they are much too lenient these days. Do we have Mike Hargrove (the human rain delay) to thank for all of this?

Doug Wenz: I am a baseball fan and a softball fanatic. Softball has been a seven-inning game for as long as I can remember (and that is a long time). I see no reason that baseball couldn't be seven innings as well. This could even help those "poor" team owners by possibly cutting down on expenses and maybe they could pass the savings on to the fans. I think that most games are probably settled in seven innings anyway and the other innings are just drudgery for most fans, players and managers.

Allan Wilayto: I was at the Red Sox-Phillies game on Sunday with my 12-year old daughter. Nice win for the Red Sox, but as Curt Schilling left after six innings I thought about your idea. There are issues. You’d lose the biblical three (Father, Son & Holy Ghost, three strikes you are out, three bases to touch before you get home, three three-act plays totaling nine innings). No “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch. What’s a rain-shortened game, four innings? Will starters only throw four innings and then Embree comes in for the fifth and Keith Foulke for the sixth? But there are pluses too. Less drinking time would mean fewer drunks. (We vacated the bleachers after six innings because the f-bombs were flowing with the beer.) Lower ticket prices? Well, one can dream. I do not think in our time it will come to pass.

Dave Horger: When you work morning radio like I do (4:00 AM start), that seven-inning concept sounds pretty good. Countless times I've attempted to watch a game on TV and just couldn't stay up past the seventh. However, there is no way the powers that be would permit that much advertising revenue to be lost. In fact, you may have noticed the time between innings has lengthened from one minute to one and a half minutes, and in some cases two minutes! More money for TV and radio.

There are several obvious reasons why games take so long these days, but I think the main culprit is lousy pitching, and I'm not only talking about those “middle men” but also many of the starters. When Greg Maddox is on his game the game moves along briskly no matter how often the hitters step out. I've been to three Pirate games this year, and in two of them the starters were sharp and each game was played in less than two hours, twenty minutes. They threw strikes!

Eric Lisann: Baseball should poll the fans to see whether they think the games are too long. It is an idea that should be explored. However, it defies logic to think that if the panjandrums were serious about speeding up the action, they couldn't do so.

Donald Terman: I agree: they could. But they have given no indication that they want to speed up the action, and that's why the games are so slow. I guess they figure the longer the games, the more concession revenue. But fans who have left the park are not buying concessions.

My proposal is fan-friendly, but not panjandrum-friendly. That's why it has no chance to succeed.

When in Lviv, stay at the Hotel Leopolis.

June 2004