John McGrath

John McGrath: Time in timeless sport, MLB? Let’s go green, yellow, red, instead

Nothing is more fundamental to baseball than the absence of clocks without hands. Among team sports, it is the only one literally deserving of the description “timeless.”

But nothing is forever, although 2-1 baseball games where the participants take 3 hours and 52 minutes to combine for three solo home runs and 21 strikeouts come close. Accelerating the pace of play has become a priority for new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.

Toward that end, the Arizona Fall League — the same operation that used instant replay on a trial basis last year — is experimenting with ways to keep things moving.

•  Hitters are required to keep at least one foot in the box throughout the at-bat (with several exceptions, too many to mention).

•  Teams are limited to three “time outs” per game, a rule designed to reduce those annoying conferences on the mound.

•  No-pitch intentional walks. (Not sure if I’m on board with this one, but then again, I wasn’t sure if I was on board with instant replay, either. It’s worked out OK.)

•  Breaks between innings are set at 2 minutes and 5 seconds; if the batter isn’t in the box after 1 minute and 45 seconds, it’s strike one.

•  A strict enforcement of Rule 8.04, which requires pitchers to throw the ball 20 seconds after they receive it, providing the bases are unoccupied. In a development that borders on, well, pick a word — shocking, distracting, terrifying, sickening — 20-second pitch clocks have been installed at the home field for the Arizona Fall League’s Salt River Rafters, who play near Scottsdale.

Pitch clocks at Salt River have been installed in both dugouts, behind home plate, and in the outfield. While radical, the idea of using 20-second clocks to discourage dawdling isn’t new. The late Oakland Athletics’ owner Charles O. Finley, who grumbled about baseball’s slow pace back when two-hour games were the norm, was a staunch advocate of clocking pitchers, and penalizing them with a called ball if their deliberation lasted longer than 20 seconds.

The pitch clock is something of a hornets nest. For one, there’s that baseball-is-timeless tradition. For two, it disrupts the essential rhythm of the game: A pitch thrown in the fourth inning of a scoreless tie shouldn’t be urgent. Urgency is an experience best left for the eighth and ninth inning.

And then there’s this potential scenario, recently posed to by Mets center fielder Curtis Granderson.

“What if the fans in the stadium start counting down all at once?” Granderson wondered. “You could have a situation where there are 10 seconds on the clock, and fans are yelling ‘3-2-1’ and messing the pitcher up. … And the next thing you know, the hitter and pitcher are both rushing to the clock because they don’t want a violation.”

Actually, fans counting down a pitch clock in unison — “3-2-1!” — strikes me as preferable to fans deciding to make a concession-stand run between the pitches of a bases-loaded threat, or fans in the box seats behind home plate holding a cellphone in one hand and waving to the TV camera with the other.

But Granderson’s point is legitimate: A 20-second clock is inherently invasive.

And yet without a 20-second clock, the pitcher, who has a lot on his mind anyway, is given more food for thought on an already stacked plate.

Here’s one idea: Instead of ugly 20-second clocks violating the ambiance of the ballpark, implement stoplights that change from green, to yellow, to red. Put them behind the plate, in the dugouts, and on the outfield scoreboard, to engage those fans who aren’t making concession runs and waving to the TV camera.

The system would be self-evident. If the light is green, the pitcher has time to contemplate the batter at hand, time to shake off a sign (or three), time to wonder, as comedian Steven Wright once did, why parkways are for driving and driveways are for parking. If the light turns yellow, it’s time to throw the darn ball. If the pitch hasn’t been delivered when the light turns red, it’s an automatic ball.

A pitch clock is an awful solution to a problem that won’t go away without some sort of enforcement component. For years, enforcement of Rule 8.04 has been left to the discretion of umpires, who never call it.

A compromise, it seems to me, is in order. Color it green, yellow and red.