Back to the future: MLB’s pitch clock is a triumph because it blasts baseball forward into a form from its past

“Baseball’s time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors.”

The venerable and inimitable baseball writer Roger Angell, who died in 2022, published those words at this time of year back in 1971. In a paean to the sport’s penchant for providing room for memories, for rumination, Angell called the lack of a ticking clock baseball’s “unique, unchangeable feature.”

But of course, this spring, it is changing.

MLB is implementing a pitch timer to accelerate the pace of play and, based on testing in the minor leagues, likely knock the average game time down from about three hours to a 2 1/2-hour range last seen in 1985. The timer, or pitch clock, has been the focus of team meetings, live batting practice sessions and spring training games in Florida and Arizona as the season draws near. At least in these early days, the clock is inspiring fascinating tactical discussions, some novel learning moments and debates over exactly how to present the game’s newest structural character.

Should the countdown be visible for TV viewers at all times? I’d vote yes.

Should we call violations that end a game “clock-offs” or something else? Still taking submissions there.

Fans tuning into their first broadcasts or attending their first games of 2023 over the next few months will soon decide how they feel about those questions and about the overall effects of the timer — many of which are still very much unknown. But for now, the early returns are overwhelmingly positive.

I’m choosing to lean into this wholeheartedly, and I’d urge even the most tradition-bound among you to give it a whirl.

I’ll make no attempt to speculate on how Angell might’ve received the pitch timer, except to say that, as with all wisdom and guidance dispensed in a different era, we should root around for the intent. In this case, the pitch timer feels like a welcome addition not because it hurtles baseball into the future but because it deftly tips it back into its own familiar, accessible form from the recent past.

Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen — whose freewheeling banter with Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez might’ve provided the best argument against the clock — noted this eloquently, observing that the newly reinstated pace is how the game is meant to be played and, in fact, how it was played when a huge swath of fans originally fell in love with baseball.

The players of the past decade or so were not moving with the same pace and rhythms as their predecessors. But as we are being reminded, they are capable of completing some full innings in two brisk, attention-retaining minutes of real time. Besides, there’s almost never an actual need to use two mid-inning minutes to muster a single pitch.

“Within the ballpark, time moves differently,” Angell wrote in 1971, “marked by no clock except the events of the game.”

That part, the crucial part, remains true. You cannot grab an early lead and then run out the clock on the Yankees. Just as the Yankees could not take a commanding, three-game lead and then coast to another victory over the 2004 Red Sox.

The best parts of this game, the parts that keep us up, rapt deep into the night, are still there. With a little digital assistance to keep the action moving, the kids awake and the crowds attuned, they might even be more present than they were before.