Fay Vincent: Is Baseball Better This Year?

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Fay Vincent headlined “Is Baseball Better This Year? You Bet It Is.”:

Major League Baseball ended the first half of its season this week with its annual All-Star game. The sport had much to celebrate and one growing menace to confront.

First, consider its successes. In recent years baseball has suffered a crisis of popularity owing, in large part, to fans’ dissatisfaction with seemingly interminable games. To the credit of Commissioner Rob Manfred, MLB listened. This season, the sport adopted significant rule changes to speed up the pace of games. Early results have been encouraging.

For starters, the new time clock imposed on pitchers has reduced undue delays, shortening the average nine-inning game by 26 minutes. Pitchers are now limited to 15 seconds to throw each pitch when bases are empty or 20 seconds when a player is on base. Gone, too, are the days in which pitchers could hold up the game by repeatedly throwing to first base. They’re now limited to two attempts per runner; on the third failed attempt the runner will move up a base.

The rules also prevent hitters from the maddening custom of stepping out of the batter’s box to adjust their batting gloves after every pitch. Batters now have to be ready by the eight-second mark, and if they aren’t, they’ll have a strike called against them. Time outs by batters are limited, as are trips to the mound by catchers.

The new rules also increase the size of the base bags, which shortens the distance between them and encourages more attempts at stealing. To catch a glimpse of the risk-taking and excitement this has inspired, watch the clip of Cincinnati Reds rookie Elly De La Cruz recently stealing second, third and home in one trip around the bases. It’s almost as if baseball has turned the clock back to the days of the great Jackie Robinson.

Yet there is also a menace haunting baseball in the form of gambling and its ever-present threat of corruption. If you’ve tuned in to a game this year, you will have seen how ubiquitous the advertisements have become. They run throughout the day and inside the commercial breaks for televised games, encouraging spectators to place their bets.

The evidence suggests that gambling is a remarkable and financial boon to virtually all dimensions of baseball. Since 2018, when the Supreme Court allowed states to legalize sports betting, Americans have bet more than $220 billion on sports. But there has been scant attention paid to where exactly the profits of such betting are going. And what about all the nontaxpaying bookies who attempt to remain hidden from the law by not reporting winnings to the Internal Revenue Service?

Someday Congress might wake up to the fact that sports betting requires a national policy. It may take awhile. The public evidently loves the practice and would no doubt resist proposals to regulate it on a federal level. But what are the odds that gambling won’t be accompanied by the corruption that has always been its partner? Lessons from the 1919 Black Sox scandal are ignored but remain potentially virulent. Corruption is pervasive in every aspect of American life, and sports betting is no different.

I’m not a gambler, but I bet lots of fans would agree with me that the faster pace of the game has made baseball more enjoyable than ever. Now, instead of being annoyed by constant delays, I enjoy watching players try to succeed at the most difficult challenge in sports: hitting a baseball thrown from 60 feet, 6 inches at top speed.

Fay Vincent was commissioner of Major League Baseball, 1989-92.

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