Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, October 28, 2021 -- "Tick Tock"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 13, No. 113
October 28, 2021

Game Two of the World Series was a shockingly snappy affair, finishing in just three hours and 11 minutes, wrapping up in plenty of time for you to catch Kimmel’s monologue. (Does Jimmy Kimmel do a monologue? I haven’t watched late-night talk shows since Arsenio Hall.) Last night’s game was the sixth-shortest during this postseason run, and just the second game since the Division Series round to come in under 3:15.

The relatively quick pace gave us a night of relief from complaints about how kids today can’t watch the World Series, as if the third graders not allowed to stay up until midnight or 12:30 a.m. on the east coast were all crowded around televisions at 11:15 p.m. last night. The slog of Game One (and some strong opinions by my friend Kevin Goldstein) led to a bit of a debate online about The State of Baseball Today, which as always was centered around one time zone in a country that spans six, four if you just focus on the primary land mass. There were all kinds of silly claims, mostly since deleted, about the start and end times of World Series games in the recent past. 

That’s where I want to focus today, just putting the end times of World Series games in 2021 in context. I am not happy that the median postseason game has stretched past 3 1/2 hours, believe me, but the hyperbolic reactions are largely inventing a past that hasn’t existed for 45 years, a past about which most fans under 55 have very little memory.

None of this was an issue at all until 1971, of course. The first 397 games in World Series history were all played under the sun. Night baseball started at Crosley Field in 1935, and after World War II made up 20% of the schedule. By 1966, more than half the schedule was played under lights. The All-Star Game was moved to a nighttime start in 1967 and pleased television executives by bringing in higher ratings. By 1970, the prime-time All-Star Game was a ratings beast, bringing in 54% of the available audience. So as an experiment, baseball moved Game Four of the ’71 Series to an 8:15 p.m. start at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. That game ended at 11:03 p.m.

It was an incredible success. An estimated 63 million people watched, making it the highest-rated show that week, with more than half the TVs turned on tuned to the Pirates and Orioles. The next year, Games Three and Four of the Series were played at night, and in 1973, all three weekday games were played at night, and every weekday Series game since then has been played at night. Take a second to consider that. There had never been a World Series game played at night until 1971. After one was, it took just two years for the league to abandon weekday day games for the World Series.

In 1976, the league tested the waters with a night game on the weekend, scheduling Game Two of the Reds/Yankees Series for 8:30 Sunday night. This game is most famous for the image of Bowie Kuhn watching from the stands in 40-degree weather while shunning an overcoat. This was less popular, and for the next few years baseball would mostly stick to a World Series pattern of night games on weeknights, day game on the weekends, with occasional late-afternoon starts for the latter. In 1985, though -- just 14 years after the first Series night game -- the entire World Series between the Royals and Cardinals was played at night, every game starting around 8:30 p.m. ET. With one exception -- Game Six of the 1987 World Series -- every World Series game since then has been scheduled at night. 

Note the frequency with which “8:30” has been used so far. That was the start time for Series games on weeknights for most of this era.  This was designed for television, so that a pregame show and the game would cover all of the Nielsen eastern primetime window from 8 to 11 p.m. (7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Central), allowing the networks to maximize the value of showing the Series (and lead into the valuable local newscasts after the game). I mention this to make the point that once the Series was moved to evenings, there was never a time when it was scheduled around the bedtimes of grade schoolers.

That’s not to say that the games weren’t a bit more accessible for a while. Reggie Jackson hit his third homer in Game Six of the 1977 World Series at around 10 p.m. ET, in an 8-4 game that started at 8:15 and ran 2:18. Games that year averaged 2:32 in a high-offense season. The year prior, 1976, was the last time that MLB games averaged less than two hours and 30 minutes. 

The first World Series I remember well is the 1979 one between the Pirates and Orioles. Five of the seven games started at 8:30 p.m., and none of those five ended before 11 p.m. The first two ended well after 11:30 p.m, and the Pirates’ Game Seven victory ended right around 11:30. Go through the 1980s, and you’ll find that most World Series dogpiles happened between 11 and midnight. Don Denkinger’s blown call? Around 11 p.m. ET. Bill Buckner’s error? Long after midnight. Kirk Gibson’s homer? 11:39 p.m. ET. “We’ll see you tomorrow night”? It was already tomorrow. 

We’re pining for an era of baseball that never existed. From almost the moment baseball went to nighttime World Series games, those games have ended after 11. There are exceptions -- the 1983 Series seems to have been played with chess clocks, as was that ’77 one Reggie ended -- but for 40 years, World Series games have ended after 11 p.m, and sometimes after midnight.

That’s not to say that nothing has changed. For one, instead of two weeks of playoffs we have four, which grinds on fans and media alike. The average regular season game has gone from 2:40 in 1983 to 3:11 this year -- and that latter figure is deflated by the pandemic rules. The average postseason game is, per the great Travis Sawchik, 40 minutes longer today than it was in 1990. Some of this is just evolution, some is intractable, some is a choice. 

Take that 1977 game, Reggie Jackson’s finest moment. I watched it; the video, which clips commercial breaks, runs 1:51 of baseball from first pitch to last. You can infer, then, that it had 27 minutes of commercial time across 16 innings breaks, about 1:40 per, with commercial time accounting for 14% of the game time.

Last night’s game had a bit more than 47 minutes of commercial time across 16 inning breaks and two pitching changes, accounting for just shy of 25% of the game time. Honestly, that’s an improvement; whether due to a lack of demand or by choice, MLB has shaved commercial time off its Series broadcasts from the last time I clocked them a few years ago. It seems I never wrote up those notes, but the breaks were well over three minutes prior to the pandemic, and they were 2:30ish last night. The pitching changes were around 2:15. Still, that’s about 20 minutes a game added relative to the regular season, time that pushes the finishes away from 11 p.m. and towards midnight.

To the extent that this is a problem to be solved, it’s difficult because there’s no one button to push. Baseball games are longer now for reasons of gameplay that resist any one solution. They’re even longer in the playoffs and World Series because the games’ importance causes the players to slow down, and there’s additional commercial inventory. Games start later due to the demands of the networks, and those demands are backed by close to $2 billion a year. I’d add that as someone who lived in and around Los Angeles for a long time, I have limited sympathy for the EDT-centricity of this whole conversation. People in Oregon like the World Series, too.

Mostly, though, I’d like to ground all of these discussions in reality, and the reality is that if you live in the Eastern time zone, World Series games have ended after your kid’s bedtime for close to 50 years. World Series games have started after your kid’s bedtime for parts of those 50 years. If you’re my age -- 50 -- or younger, you have no memory of weekday World Series day games, and if you’re older than me your kids have no memory of them. If you’re under 45 -- meaning you were nine years old in 1984 -- you have only a vague memory of a World Series game played in afternoon sunshine.

The World Series has been a late-night endeavor for two generations now. Let’s accept that and focus on making gameplay changes that might at least keep the games from ending after midnight so often.