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Speed The Plow

At long last. Relief.

Why be concerned whether D-Rose can lead the defense-less Bulls deep into the playoffs or whether the Blackhawks can turn it on when it counts? Finally we have an alternative to hearing about the status of Brandon Marshall and quarterback whatshisname. No longer do we have to wonder, "What in the world?" about the coverage of a future NFL millionaire who runs a measly 40 yards faster than other potential millionaires or bench presses more weight more times than other sculpted Adonises.

The mundane now fades into the background because pitchers and catchers have reported. The biting chill of minus-zero temps and carving out a curbside parking space have been assuaged since Chris Sale is throwing off a mound, and David Robertson - a genuine, true-blue closer - is in the building. Melky Cabrera can spray hits from both sides of the plate, and no one is overly concerned whether new utility man Gordon Beckham regains his rookie form. Single game tickets go on sale Friday.

Meanwhile, the buzz on the other side of town is refreshing. There, I've said it. But how else is one to react to the bubbling enthusiasm of Joe Maddon, an intelligent, interesting man who represents a step up from Bud Light to Scottish Ale for our friends on the North Side. However, bleacher seats at the Friendly Confines will not go on sale Friday since there will be no place to sit until June.

Amid the euphoria is the report out of the commissioner's office that something needs to be done to speed up the game. The one game that doesn't have a clock. A game that more often than not is played in warm weather under blue skies or moon-bathed cloudless nights with a unique pace in a world where schedules and deadlines create unhealthy blood pressure, tension and lunacy.

The average big-league game last year lasted three hours and two minutes, or about 10 minutes less than an NFL game of which there are 11 minutes of action. An NBA game goes on for approximately 2 1/2 hours, although the rap against pro basketball is that nothing important happens until the fourth quarter.

Nevertheless, baseball leads all other forms of entertainment when it comes to paranoia. The game continually is tinkered with by the powers-that-be because of a feeling of inferiority when compared to their pro sports brethren.

This spring's focus centers on making the games shorter by adapting rules like a hitter keeping one foot in the batter's box except in cases of wild pitches, foul balls or passed balls. The Arizona Fall League tried this and other ideas - a 20-second clock for pitchers' deliveries and limits on trips to the mound by catchers, managers and coaches - and found that the games lasted 10 minutes shorter. What an earth-shaking success!

My wife had a predictable reaction to this news. "If people want a shorter game, then they can leave in the seventh or eighth inning," she observed, "and that's basically what they do." In the ballpark that draws more fans than any other, Dodger Stadium, fans arguably spend the least amount of time in their seats. Of the nearly 3.8 million faithful who filed through the turnstiles in Chavez Ravine last season, many came late and left early. But they still showed up.

In Arizona last fall, a hitter leaving the batter's box had an automatic strike called. Nothing that harsh has been proposed for MLB. Instead a fine of $500 seems reasonable to these idiots who are so concerned about getting us home - or into a local watering hole - 10 minutes earlier.

Well, we'll have to see how that works. One of the players who takes his sweet time at the plate is the Red Sox's David Ortiz. Big Papi made approximately $25,000 every time he came to bat in 2014. You read that correctly. Ya think he'll miss that 500 bucks every now and then if he decides to step out, spit on his batting gloves and smack his hands together before ripping the next offering inside Pesky's Pole. He could step out after every pitch and still enjoy a luxurious retirement.

Of course, all this comes on the heels of last season's introduction of replay review, which, obviously, requires a stoppage in the action, making games last longer. New rules stipulate that a manager must challenge from the dugout which should speed things up by a minute or two. Last season's longest challenge took more than six minutes in a game in Miami.

That was an aberration, but sitting at The Cell last season and watching the umpires stand around waiting to discover whether a call was correct was never the highlight of any game. Does it seem weird or disingenuous for the commissioner's office to initiate time-consuming replay review one season and then get uptight the next spring because they want shorter games?

Not only that, the pitcher, not the hitter, controls the pace of the game. Former Sox darling Mark Buehrle takes about 17 seconds between receiving the ball from his catcher before throwing the next pitch. That's about six seconds faster than the major league average. Buehrle can throw 100 pitches in 28 minutes. When he pitched on the South Side, if you showed up late, chances are you missed an inning or two.

Buehrle schooled Chris Sale, so our current left-handed star is also a fast worker. In 16 decisions last season - Sale had a 12-4 record - Sale's games averaged 2:47:30. Back on June 1, he dispatched the Padres in 2:08. In only three of his decisions did the game go longer than three hours. When pitchers like Buehrle and Sale take their turns, the games are shorter. Simple as that.

The other factor keeping us at the ballpark for three hours is television, and only a fool would expect Major League Baseball to tell the networks to air fewer ads between innings. In fact, MLB has to check with the TV guys just to find out what time to start a game. Billions of dollars will do that.

Nowadays there is a lull between innings after the team just retired takes its time to go out to their positions. There's no hurry since the folks at home need to sit through a few minutes of advertising. And that's not about to change. Not ever.

Maybe the commissioner's office should rule that only so many pitching changes can be made. The mid-inning summoning of yet another reliever from the bullpen has become de rigueur thanks to people like Tony LaRussa, who also was instrumental in introducing the boring, tedious replay review. During his Hall of Fame managing career, LaRussa usually was the first one to arrive in the clubhouse and the last one to leave. So spending more time at the ballpark never has bothered him.

Of course, every manager looks for favorable match-ups, seldom hesitating to call in a pitcher for just one hitter. That move can be countered by the opposing manager who uses a pinch hitter. All of which takes time.

High school and college baseball adopted measures long ago that sped up the game: courtesy runners for pitchers and catchers, no throwing of pitches for intentional walks, players sprinting onto and off the field between innings, and games ending because of the slaughter rule. High schools play only seven innings.

That's fine for schoolboys but would never fly for the professionals. Years ago in the days of two-hour games before television and relief pitchers were invented, pace of play rarely entered into discussions about baseball. The sport had an entertainment monopoly. Tampering with the rules was out of the question.

Today baseball is just one of many options for our free time. Yet total big league attendance in the past 15 years has remained between 72 and 79 million, TV contracts have mushroomed, 52 million people turned in to part or all of Game 7 of last fall's World Series, and overall revenues never have been higher.

Shortening games by 10 minutes doesn't figure to change anything.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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1. From Bill Blackwell, former general manager of the Charlotte Knights:

Your most recent column is spot-on. Although I will appreciate a quicker game, I don't think speeding the game up will create one new fan in and of itself. Real baseball fans don't want the games to drag but those that don't watch games now will not start watching because games are over 10 minutes quicker.

If we are trying to reach younger fans why not put at least weekend World Series games on when kids are available to watch? For over 30 years now the most important games of the year - our Super Bowl of Baseball - have started at 8:30 Eastern time to accommodate the networks. I understand that television is paying the freight but offering at least some of the World Series at a reasonable time would allow the baseball hierarchy to promote itself to those millions of kids that haven't watched the most exciting parts of the season in their lifetime.

The networks themselves and the media covering baseball are the only ones I hear crying to speed up the game.

Calling more strikes, not throwing seven or eight pitches per batter and shortening the time needed to get replay rulings will cut most of the time to reduce the average time of game by five or 10 minutes. Let's not introduce a clock to the most beautiful game on the planet.

Abner Doubleday (or whomever invented baseball) would roll over in his grave to hear what suggestions are floating around to improve his product.

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