One of baseball's venerable axioms is that no one goes to a game to watch the umpires. Maybe not, but I for one will be happy to go to cheer the umpires.
At least I will do so for any composed of the same stuff as Joe West, who the other day brought down a stern judgment about the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox: "It's pathetic and embarrassing. They take too long to play."
West does not merely say the right things. On Tuesday night, when the longtime -- and I do mean long time -- rivals met, his plate umpire, Angel Hernandez, did something that is seen about as often on a baseball field as a troupe of ballerinas. Batters asked for time out, and he declined to give it to them. "Shut up and hit" was the implicit message.
It was not enough to moderate the exhausting duration of the game. That night, the two teams managed to pack nine innings into three hours and 48 minutes, during which time you could have flown from Las Vegas to Chicago.
There are many good reasons that games have gotten longer, from an average of two hours and 23 minutes in 1951 to 2:52 last season. (New York and Boston, the slowest teams, typically exceeded three hours). Pitching changes are more common, batters are more intent on working long counts, and base runners may draw more pickoff throws.
But then there are the bad reasons, which fall into two categories: batters and pitchers. The guy on the mound can extend the contest to punishing lengths by stepping off the rubber, walking around the mound, fiddling with the rosin bag, and so on, and many pitchers make full and frequent use of the opportunity.
The rules stipulate that when there are no men on base, the pitcher has 12 seconds to transport the ball in the direction of the catcher. But last year, the average interval was 27 seconds. Umpires punished laggards 15 or 20 times by calling a ball on a pitch that wasn't thrown, but that means penalties were assessed once in every 121 games.
Without more vigorous enforcement, we should not expect things to get much better. Major League Baseball Vice President Bob Watson told the Associated Press, "My dream for 2010 is to have a pace of 25 seconds per pitch." Dream big, Bob!