FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Baseball is on the clock.
The traditionally timeless sport implemented a pitch clock in major league spring training for the first time on Saturday in an attempt to hurry up both pitchers and hitters and keep the modern fan from tuning out the increasingly lengthy games.
Sixteen games across Florida and Arizona were scheduled to be played under the new rules, which were being phased in without threat of penalty for the first few days or more. There were no notable incidents in the afternoon, when three of the six games approached or surpassed 3 hours.
“I hope it gets the tempo up,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said after the St. Louis Cardinals beat Miami 11-1 in 3 hours, 15 minutes. “It sounds like at the minor league level they get used to it, and that’s the way you go.”
Baseball has long billed itself as a timeless sport, but as average game times creeped over 3 hours that has become less a badge of honor and more a reason for some young or short attention span fans to turn to other forms of entertainment.
Since taking over as commissioner, Rob Manfred has made speeding up games one of his primary goals. Last year, the average length of a nine-inning game fell to 3 hours — five minutes shorter than the previous season, but still 36 minutes longer than a typical game in 1976.
After pushing for an agreement with the players last season, baseball management decided on its own to experiment with pitch clocks during spring training this year. They have the right to implement them for the regular season but would prefer to reach an agreement with the union.
Los Angeles Dodgers veteran Rich Hill threw seven pitches in the first inning and retired the Chicago White Sox in order.
“I didn’t notice the pitch clock,” he said. “I’m against it, but I think it’s just really a fundamental thing for me. That’s it, period. It’s there, great, maybe we can be aware of it. But if it’s going to dictate the outcome of the game, I would hope everybody who loves the game and watches baseball would be against it for that reason only.”
“If it’s out there and it’s, ‘Hey, we have to pick it up, we’re using the clock to use as a warning or a guideline,’ that would be fine. But I didn’t really notice the clock. I usually pitch with pretty decent pace anyways,” he said.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who has two of the slowest pitchers in the game in Joe Kelly and Pedro Baez, said he thinks they will figure it out.
“They have to adjust,” he said. “That’s just the way it goes. We’ll have those conversations with those guys. I think with spring training, it’s a good opportunity for these guys to make an adjustment.”
They’ll need to hurry.
Of the six early games on Saturday, three finished at 2:30 and under and three were at 2:56 or more. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees — a rivalry that has repeatedly resulted in four-hour regular season games ending at or near midnight — finished in 3:06 in 85-degree heat in front of a half-empty ballpark.
Each team scored two runs and used two relievers to get through the eighth inning. As the Yankees drew two walks and sent the tying run to the plate in the ninth, a boy in a Dustin Pedroia T-shirt in the front row near the Boston dugout lazily threw a ball against the protective netting.
“In spring training, the game is going to slow down,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said.
Many players around the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues said they talked about the clocks in their pregame meetings, but they didn’t pay much attention to them on the field.
At Boston’s spring training ballpark in Fort Myers, there is a clock behind home plate, one near third base and one in center field. It counted down the time between innings, or when a relief pitcher entered the game, and switched to a pitch clock starting with the second pitch to a batter.
Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks, one of the few regulars to play on Saturday, said he was aware of the clock but it didn’t make him feel rushed.
“I’m looking, I’m looking. I just wanted to make sure I was on time,” he said swiveling his head around in the visitor’s clubhouse after leaving the game. “Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed it a couple of times but it was still pretty early” in the countdown.
Let the Grapefruit League action begin!
— Boston Red Sox (@RedSox) February 23, 2019
Under the phase-in designed to allow teams to get used to the concept without fear of penalty, pitchers and batters who were taking too long in Saturday’s games were merely warned to hurry up. (When the policy, which has been used in some minor leagues since 2015, is phased in, a ball will be charged to pitchers who do not begin their motion in time.)
“In the minors, we had a pitch clock like that,” Orioles starter Yefry Ramirez said through a translator. “So I was already used to that rhythm.”
Pirates reliever Aaron Slegers delivered a pitch to Phillies shortstop Jean Segura after the clock expired in the fifth inning after catcher Jacob Stallings spent half the time giving defensive signs with runners on base. Other times, the clock nearly ran out after batters stepped out of the box.
Yankees starter Nestor Cortes Jr. said he heard home plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth tell one batter to hurry up; The Associated Press requested permission to talk to the umpires, but a spokesman for Major League Baseball declined, saying it was too early in the process to comment.
“It’s a work in progress. Everyone is aware of that,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “That’s what spring training is for. I’ve gone through similar things with instant replay. It’s a good opportunity to provide a litmus test and see where it goes.”