Checking in with the always principled Bob Costas
Baseball generally moves slowly. Yet at this point, MLB’s newly installed pitch clock has advanced efficiently and is being embraced by the baseball community at-large.
One subject that hasn’t come up much on either social media or by the media overall is how the volume of advertising time has erupted. As late as the 70s, only one minute of commercial time ran between half-innings. The ad log has doubled through the last forty to fifty years, requiring some twenty additional minutes per game.
If there’s anyone who can make sense of all evolving in baseball, it’s Bob Costas. For my money he’s sports’ best national all-around sportscaster. He personifies sophistication; comfortably doing interviews with Presidents and dignitaries or with the visibly unsophisticated. Baseball admittedly is his first love; fifty years of storytelling and play-by-play at its highest level.
Bob and I did a Q&A last week:
- The pitch-clock is a little more than a month into the season. You’ve already experienced it from the broadcast booth or watching it off the screen, wherever convenient. What are your kneejerk thoughts to these questions?
First, the pitch timer and the other changes (eliminating shifts, limiting pickoffs) have been very successful.
It’s possible that there will be some tweaks. For example, a few managers have told me they think 15 seconds with no one on base is a bit quick, and they favor a uniform 20 seconds with or without runners on. But that’s just a tweak.
Overall, it’s working as planned, including more stolen bases and higher overall batting averages on balls in play.
- Immediately after MLB implemented this new rule, the game moved more rapidly. There’s less time for the extraneous, even a quick quip. What suggestions would you have for younger announcers digging deeper into this inaugural season?
As for how it affects a broadcast, on the one hand, you can say it’s not much different from the 80s, when the average time of game was about the same. But there is a difference: Currently, there is a uniform pace, because the pitch clock imposes it. Previously, there were variations, where some pitchers and hitters took a bit longer.
- What would you share with broadcasters about how to slip in a story and not miss critical developments?
A broadcaster could sense those variations, and depending on game circumstances, could use those spaces to slip in a story or make a point. It’s still possible to do. You just need to be more aware of the new rhythm.
By the way, if in the 80s, there were variations in pace, the reason overall game times were roughly the same, as now, is because back then, there were significantly fewer strikeouts. Which, logically, also meant fewer deep counts. So, even if a given pitcher or hitter took his own sweet time, other factors evened it out.
- Differentiate radio from TV and what guidelines these respective broadcasters will face?
As always, the differences between radio and television are significant. On TV, if you are bantering with your partner, or relating an anecdote, you can let a pitch taken for a ball, or a foul back go by, without comment and just continue, because the viewer can see that and it requires no caption. (In 2018, Bob Costas was honored by Baseball’s Hall of Fame with the Ford Frick Award.)
On radio, each pitch must be noted, although not always fully described. Generally, on radio, the broadcaster has the mic to himself. The second broadcaster only chimes in occasionally. Also, there are no graphics or camera shots that require acknowledgment. So the radio play-by-play announcer has close to a blank canvas (even with the commercial reads that clutter some broadcasts) and can adapt to the new pace relatively easily, since he can just pick up where he left off, if something significant occurs before he finishes a story or shares an observation. By the way, I am using “HE” here, since it’s less unwieldy than “he or she” but I am well aware of very good baseball announcers like Melanie Newman in Baltimore, and I expect the number of female play-by-play broadcasters to increase as time goes by.
Back to the TV side. Prior to this year, good producers would have many pertinent graphics and video clips ready for each game. Visuals that illustrate a team or player’s strengths and weaknesses, graphics that trace some aspect of a player or team’s season or history, videos or archival photos connected to the anniversary of a significant baseball moment. Those elements are still part of a good telecast, but since games are no longer dragging, you don’t need them as often to fill lulls. So they are used more judiciously now.
- One of the last things that Vin Sully shared with me early last year, months before he passed, was that he wasn’t convinced that fans wanted to leave for home earlier. He thought that they liked being in the ballpark and enjoyed themselves there.
It has been noted that those actually in attendance at games don’t mind if it goes three hours or more, since they are there to soak in the entire experience. While that is likely true, the quicker (we hope not rushed) pace is much better for TV and the modern fan’s attention span. Especially since baseball is in competition now with an increasing number of other entertainment options and distractions.
As I have often said, baseball is supposed to have a pleasing, leisurely pace. Not a plodding, lethargic pace. This season’s changes are designed to bring us back to the proper balance. Even if it takes some getting used to, and even if trial and error leads to some slight corrections, the general idea is the right one. And the early returns are very positive.