Inside Baseball’s Desperate Effort to Save Itself From Irrelevance

Photographs by Tony Luong

Where in the name of human rain delays is Juan Soto?

The stud outfielder is late. Everyone keeps checking their phones—the antsy Major League Baseball officials, the San Diego Padres PR guy, the handful of reporters, and the assorted hangers-on you encounter around baseball clubhouses. Everyone is wondering when the Padres superstar will show up. He was supposed to be here half an hour ago, just after this baseball players’ sanctum opened and we were allowed to join them in their most elemental of baseball activities: waiting around.

Soto, who is 24, works at his own pace. He is a baseball player. Players do their thing and the game indulges their routines, at least to a point. But everything was supposed to be different today, the first day of baseball’s new, accelerated life. I had flown into Phoenix the night before to witness the first spring-training game of the year, in Peoria, Arizona, between the Padres and the Seattle Mariners. Normally, I would pay zero attention to this contest. Even if it counted in the standings—or, for that matter, even if it was a World Series game—I wouldn’t care. Baseball has been losing me for years, as steadily as its games have become more interminable every season: less scoring, less action, slower, more stagnant.

Yet here I am—here we all are—for a Padres–Mariners scrimmage on February 24, one of two games scheduled to begin just after 1 p.m. (The Rangers would be concurrently opening against the Royals not far away, in Surprise, Arizona.) These would be curious and newfangled specimens, the first major-league contests to feature rules enacted to revitalize a sport that had been heading toward cultural irrelevancy. “Time of game: three hours, 32 minutes”—or some such bloated number—had become a mocking coda to the nightly slogs.

In a few hours, MLB would introduce a novel ethic into its stationary culture: urgency. Limits would be placed on pickoff throws as well as time taken between pitches and between at-bats. The most radical change would be the addition of a pitch clock, a kind of pacemaker to reregulate the game’s lagging heartbeat. Pitchers would now be allowed just 15 seconds to begin their motion to deliver the baseball to home plate (20 seconds with runners on base), and hitters would have to be set in the batter’s box by the eight-second mark. Failure to do so would result in an automatic ball (for delinquent pitchers) or strike (for dawdling batters). The goal is to curtail dead time, the endless velcroing and re-velcroing of batting gloves and strolling around the mound. Also, in an effort to stimulate offense, MLB had banned infield shifts; to encourage aggressive baserunning, it had augmented the size of the bases.

How would this “best version of baseball,” as one of its architects calls it, play in Peoria? At the very least, hopefully it would play faster. The pitch clocks, which were deployed throughout the minor leagues in 2022, cut the average game time by 26 minutes. Pretty much everyone who experienced this sped-up rendering loved it. But that was the minors. And it’s one thing for a spectator to be anesthetized over several years and crave something new. But what would the royalty think?

And how would this affect King Juan, if he ever gets here? A Padres PR guy is apologetic, explaining to me that Soto is still relatively new to the team—he was acquired from the Washington Nationals last year—and that the staff is still trying to divine his propensities and quirks. After about 40 minutes, Soto appears through a side door and heads for his locker. He pauses and scrolls through his phone. I think about walking up to him, but my legs will not move. It’s funny that way with pro athletes, my earliest idols. They can be extremely scary to approach. I’ve interviewed presidents, Nobel laureates, and all flavors of tycoon and luminary over the years and never felt intimidated. But put me in front of a partially dressed man-child in pajama pants who can hit a baseball and I’m suddenly reduced to a puddle at his feet.

“Juan, hey,” I say, finally moving toward him.

“I gotta go over here,” Soto says, blowing past me and into a training room.

After another 10 minutes, Soto reemerges and starts bantering in Spanish with two of his teammates, designated hitter Nelson Cruz and star third baseman Manny Machado. They stand in a huddle, giggling a few feet away from where Xander Bogaerts, the former Boston Red Sox shortstop who signed an 11-year, $280 million contract this past winter, is being interviewed.

Soto continues to give off strong “do not approach” vibes, so I hold my position in the center of the room. Next to me is another clubhouse loiterer, Josh Rawitch, the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in Cooperstown, New York, who is on hand to collect mementos from this landmark happening. “We’re going to want to grab one of the new larger bases at some point,” Rawitch says to me. It seems wholly on-brand for baseball that even in this season of renovation, the sport remains ever attentive to its treasured souvenirs. Rawitch hands me his business card and the two of us continue waiting around.

Finally Soto ambles back toward his locker and I walk over to introduce myself. The time is now 8:56 a.m., exactly four minutes until the clubhouse will be closed to interlopers. “I have a good feeling,” Soto reports to me after I lead off our discussion with a piercing How do you feel? question. Specifically, how does he feel about the new pitch clock?

2 photos: baseball player holding bat; pitch clock at bottom of scoreboard
Scenes from the game between the Rockies and Mets at Citi Field on May 7 (left) and from Fenway Park on April 26 (right), a day the Red Sox had an away game versus the Orioles. A new MLB pitch clock is observable dangling from the Jumbotron behind center field at Fenway. (Tony Luong for The Atlantic)

“I feel like baseball, if you enjoy the game, you gotta give us time to think and to see and look around at everything,” Soto says. This might have been a mild complaint, but I would generally characterize Soto’s default posture as unfazed.

“Nine a.m., folks,” a team official announces. Nonplayers start heading for the exits. I wish Soto luck and he shakes my hand and that is the extent of the action.

Time of interview: three minutes and 10 seconds.

I feared that my foray back into baseball might end up a requiem. I missed having a sport to care about after the NBA and NHL playoffs ended and before football began. I obsessed over baseball growing up and rarely missed a Red Sox game into my 30s. But by the time I reached middle age, baseball was an afterthought. The only time I would ever seriously tune in again was when the Sox happened to be playing in the postseason, which fortunately has occurred with some regularity this century. (On a related note: The Yankees will always fair and squarely suck.)

The so-called national pastime’s fade into bygone territory has happened simultaneously with my brain speeding up to receive the various dopamine pelts coming at me from my phone, laptop, NFL RedZone channel, or whatever else captures my attention instead of the latest chore creeping past midnight on the MLB Network.

Apparently, there were many of us. We were reflected in audience surveys and TV ratings and testimonials from pretty much every longtime baseball fan I knew. Annual game attendance dropped from 79.5 million in 2007 to 64.5 million last year. And then there was the separate constituency of younger fans and thrill-seekers who never got the baseball thing to begin with and weren’t exactly bingeing Field of Dreams and George Will columns to find out what they were missing. I remember a few years ago trying to get my then-13-year-old nephew, Carlos, excited about the longest-ever World Series game, which had been played the night before, a 3–2 victory by the Los Angeles Dodgers over the Red Sox in 18 innings (seven hours, 20 minutes). Carlos flashed me a classic “OK Boomer” smirk (even though I’m not a Boomer!) and went back to his Minecraft or fantasy football or whatever the hell he was doing.

Baseball had a great run, a nice century. Boxing used to be huge too. Times change, tastes veer, attention spans shrink. Cultural gems become cultural relics. It’s no one’s fault; we move on to new things. Roger Angell died last year. Vida Blue left us in May. (His Topps card was in the spokes of my bike.) Nothing is timeless, not even baseball.

Each morning in years past, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred would review daily reports charting the advancing lengths of the previous night’s games. “It was not a good story,” he told me. “Last year was so depressing, I just stopped doing it.” Manfred, who started as commissioner in 2015, knew that the game had hit a bad seam. To avoid further decline, baseball would have to save itself from lethargy.

[From the July/August 2018 issue: Chasing the ‘Holy Grail’ of baseball performance]

I came in as a kind of embedded spectator to this operation beginning last fall, when I attended Game 4 of the World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the visiting Houston Astros. My three-hour trip up I-95 from Washington, D.C., told its own story of the cultural ghetto that baseball now inhabited. As I drove, I sampled the sports-radio offerings in various cities. Around D.C., everyone was fixated on the news that the hideous owner of the Washington Commanders, Daniel Snyder, might finally be unloading the once-venerable NFL franchise. Baltimore stations featured intense concern over the contract dispute between the Ravens and their star quarterback, Lamar Jackson.

Not until I got within 30 miles or so of Philly did anyone on the radio so much as mention the World Series—a mark of baseball’s drift into the foul territory of “regional sport.” Upon entering the City of Brotherly Love, it was all Phillies, everywhere. Philadelphia is a great sports town, and the surprising Phillies—who barely slipped into the postseason—play in spiffy Citizens Bank Park to loud and engaged fans, albeit many of them drunk, disgusting animals.

2 photos: umpire stands behind catcher kneeling with pitch clock in background; pitcher on mound mid-pitch
Scenes from the game between the Rockies and Mets at Citi Field on May 7 (left) and from a Red Sox–Guardians game on April 30 (right). A new MLB pitch clock is behind the catcher at Citi Field. (Tony Luong for The Atlantic)

The game itself was historic. I suppose. Four Houston pitchers combined to no-hit the Phillies in a 5–0 victory that tied the Fall Classic at two games apiece. It was just the second no-hitter in the World Series’ 119-year history, joining Yankees pitcher Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956. The Fox broadcasters and a few sportswriters and Astros partisans seemed dutifully aroused by the achievement; the Hall of Fame secured the rosin bag. But besides that milestone, I remember nothing about the game, mostly because nothing happened—and it took three hours and 25 minutes.

“It’s cool; we’ll be in the history books, I guess,” Phillies left fielder Kyle Schwarber said at his locker after the game, his voice as dead as his team’s bats. “Yeah, I really don’t give a shit.”

Neither, apparently, did large swaths of the viewing public. Philly–Houston in 2022 was the second-lowest-rated World Series since Nielsen began tracking these numbers five decades ago, ahead of only the COVID Classic of 2020.

Before Game 4, I’d met Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, who was preparing to monitor the action, such as it was, from a suite above home plate. Sword, a boyish, ruddy-faced dynamo, has been the chief orchestrator of the new rules. He began planning to implement them after baseball’s new collective-bargaining agreement was reached in early 2022. “Welcome to one of the last slow baseball games,” Sword said as I entered the suite. I assured Sword that I would savor this bland finale with great nostalgia—maybe between pickoff throws.

Sword and I would meet a few times through the offseason. His mission was straightforward: to make baseball less boring.

“I think it’s the most significant change made to the sport in my lifetime,” he told me, referring to the pitch clock. Sword is only 38, so his lifetime does not cover most of the game’s major transformations. Still, his point would be valid even if he’d been born a century ago. The introduction of the designated hitter, in 1973, was certainly meaningful, but it was more of a lineup and personnel amendment than a disruption of the game’s rhythms. Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier, in 1947, transformed the culture, character, and style of the sport forever, but not the actual rules. Night baseball, which began in 1935, was a huge development, but ultimately a scheduling phenomenon. None of these changes recalibrated baseball’s essential pace.

For years the league had done its best to speed things along, but the enforcement mechanisms were toothless. If a player was particularly lackadaisical during an at-bat, an umpire might tell him to hurry up; if he was a habitual slowpoke, MLB might send out a warning or, at worst, issue a fine of a few hundred dollars—loose change to the multimillionaire offender.

“The league office would send letters fining the players,” Theo Epstein told me. Epstein, the former general manager of the Red Sox and president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, masterminded those franchises’ first championships in 86 and 108 years, respectively. “And we’d have to have someone in the office take the letters down to the clubhouse to the players so they could crumple them up into a ball and then say, ‘Just tell me how much the next fine is.’ ”

When Manfred took over as commissioner, he made it clear that speeding up the game was a priority. He instituted a set of relatively minor adjustments that nibbled a few minutes and seconds away here and there—limitations on warm-up throws, in-game conferences, and pitching changes; eliminating the need to throw four outside pitches to complete an intentional walk. But this did not address the biggest drag on time: pitchers and batters futzing around between deliveries.

So starting this season, excessive delay would be punishable by balls and strikes, a direct performance cost that could influence the outcome of the game and the players’ statistics. After two unsuccessful pickoff throws by a pitcher, an unsuccessful third one will advance the runner a base. “One thing you learn about discipline in baseball is, uh, that money is a very weak deterrent,” Manfred told me with a resigned laugh. “The things that work affect what players really care about: Do you win or lose? Does it affect how well you do your job?”

photo of man in suit and tie on green background
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred found the growing length of professional baseball games “depressing.” He committed to speeding up and reinvigorating the game. (Tony Luong for The Atlantic)

Baseball has been eager to bring pitch clocks to the big leagues for years, especially after its top executives saw how effective they were in cutting game times in the minors. After a reorganization of the sport in 2020, MLB gained oversight of minor-league baseball, which became a laboratory for potential innovations. The league also conducted fan surveys showing that not only did fans want a brisker pace; they also did not care for all the walks and strikeouts and pickoff throws. They craved more action and offense; more balls hit into play; more doubles, triples, and stolen bases. But MLB could not quickly implement any of these big changes without the approval of the Major League Baseball Players Association, a colossus of a sports union that tends to be fiercely distrustful of management. This is particularly true of rule changes that owners might impose that could affect players’ livelihoods. Baseball in general is the most change-averse of games, bound like no other major sport to its quirky traditions and rules, written and unwritten. Players can be a notoriously delicate bunch, protective of their routines and hypersensitive to workplace disruptions.

Baseball’s last collective-bargaining agreement expired after the 2021 season, which resulted in an offseason lockout that delayed spring training and the start of the 2022 season. A game that was ailing to begin with now appeared headed for a catastrophic work stoppage. Some fans responded with their standard laments about the greed, arrogance, and ineptitude of the game’s leaders. But, perhaps more worrisome, many others didn’t seem to care all that much. Would anyone really miss baseball?

In March 2022, MLB owners and players reached a deal on a new five-year collective-bargaining agreement, ending the lockout after 99 days. Beyond the major points of contention over minimum salaries and bonus pools, the agreement made it easier for MLB to change the rules. A new joint competition committee was formed to deliberate over new rules; it was made up of six owners, four players, and one umpire, so management effectively controlled the panel. Six months after the new agreement was signed, the league announced a more enduring salvation: the pitch clock, coming in 2023.

Though the Players Association accused the Commissioner’s Office of refusing to “meaningfully incorporate the player feedback,” this was perhaps the most enlightened addition to baseball since batting helmets, or maybe soft-serve ice cream (served in mini batting helmets). In September 2021, I had attended a California League game in San Bernardino that deployed one of these beauties. It was a revelation and, I hoped, a preview. Unbeknownst to me, Sword and a few members of his team had attended a California League game a few weeks earlier, in Rancho Cucamonga, and had a similarly effusive reaction to what they saw.

The innings flew by in San Bernardino, even though the two teams I was watching—the Inland Empire 66ers and the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes—scored tons of runs. I was focused on the action and barely checked my phone. Rancho Cucamonga won 8–7, and the game was over in two hours, 40 minutes. A few days later, I attended a clockless MLB game in Los Angeles that was, comparatively, like watching grass grow, albeit the lush and manicured pastures of Dodger Stadium.

News of the coming rule changes, particularly the pitch clock, was met warily by some major leaguers. The knee-jerk critique of the clock was tied to the purist notion that baseball was unique in its “timelessness,” that its leisurely rhythms should be sacrosanct.

I don’t like it,” Red Sox second baseman Trevor Story said after the new rules were announced. “Our game is special in that it doesn’t have a clock.” Story, who signed a six-year, $140 million contract with Boston in March 2022—since then, he’s mostly languished on the injured list—seemed put off by the idea that anyone would want to spend less time witnessing the divine occurrence of a baseball competition. “I don’t know why everybody wants it over so quick,” he said. (Ideally, for Red Sox fans, his contract would be too.)

In general, the “baseball must be timeless” decree is lazy and dumb, and typically trotted out by those who have never endured a 37-minute inning with a melting-down 6-year-old on a school night. For starters, no one was proposing placing a timer on baseball’s substantive action. They are regulating only excess time between pitches—the practice swings, swatting of bugs, and staring at dirt. Unlike an NBA game, whose essential activity will always cease after 48 minutes (barring overtime), a baseball game is still measured in 27 outs per team (barring extra innings). No one activates a timing device after a ball is hit; the play is over when it’s over. If a pitcher can’t get a batter out, no buzzer will save him; if neither team has a run advantage after nine innings, they keep playing.

“I think the statement that ‘baseball is the game with no clock’ is more facile than deep,” Manfred, the MLB commissioner, told me. He mentioned an interview, conducted by the sports broadcaster Dan Patrick, with Tom Boswell, the exquisite former baseball columnist for The Washington Post. Boswell, Manfred told me, was thrilled by the new rules and said he was “back” to watching baseball, which the commissioner said had helped him appreciate how far things had deteriorated. “It’s one thing when you’re talking about Joe on the street,” Manfred said. “But when you have people who make their living in the business saying ‘I’m not watching as much,’ you have a problem.”

Epstein told me that when he was running the Cubs, after they were eliminated from contention he would watch every postseason game between the remaining clubs—or he would for as long as he could stand it. “Some of those World Series games were taking so long, I found myself channel surfing,” Epstein said. “And I talked to a lot of other people in baseball who were experiencing the same thing.”

In the middle of January 2023, Morgan Sword and his team invited me to a Scottsdale, Arizona, resort to attend a special “boot camp” that MLB had organized for the game’s 76 full-time umpires to get acclimated to the new rules. “Our goal is to suck the idle time out of our game,” Reed MacPhail, the league’s senior vice president of baseball operations, announced to the umpires during an evening presentation. (ESPN’s Jeff Passan described the pitch clock as “baseball liposuction.”) The all-hands session dragged on for more than three hours—metaphor alert!—in large part because the umpires seemed unsettled by the coming revolution and asked a million questions. “Umpires thrive on guidance,” Sword told me outside the ballroom. “We expected a lot of the back-and-forth. It’s better to iron things out now.” Sword said the main purpose of the retreat was to encourage the umpires to enforce the new rules from day one. No exceptions, easing-in, or grace periods. “Once we flip the switch on this, we’re into the future,” he said.

photo of baseball game with blue sky and crowded stands
The Rockies bat against the Mets, May 7. (Tony Luong for The Atlantic)

Sword fits the current mold of young baseball executive. He was a high-school catcher and outfielder in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, who was not good enough to keep playing at the University of Virginia, where he majored in economics. He interned one summer with the Phillies and was inspired to pursue a career in baseball after reading Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s best-selling 2003 book on the data-and-analytics revolution in the sport pioneered by Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane.

Like many concerned keepers of the game and its traditions, Sword will often explain the creeping dispassion for baseball in terms of that overcooked analogy about the boiling frog in the pot. “Part of what made this so tricky was that the games were getting two or three minutes slower every year rather than half an hour slower, so there was never a point where it felt like a real emergency,” he told me. I offered an alternative analogy, comparing baseball’s predicament to a slow-growing tumor that the new rules would surgically excise. “I’d prefer to go back to the frog,” Sword said.

How did America’s beloved old frog find itself in such mortal danger? Baseball’s slowdown took many forms and had no shortage of culprits: The Moneyball innovators placed premium value on hitters “working counts” and “taking walks.” “Grinding out at-bats” became a thing; players with keen batting eyes became folk heroes (Lewis introduced readers to a newly coveted minor-league infielder, Kevin Youkilis, “the Greek god of walks”). Meanwhile, a boom in pitching talent and “optimization” tools led to an obsession with hurlers “missing bats.” Pitchers throw significantly harder than they used to—fastballs now average 94 miles an hour—which requires greater physical exertion and, in many cases, several seconds more recovery time between deliveries. The result: more strikeouts, more walks, less contact with the ball, less offense, less action. This new breed of analytics eggheads provided fodder for a classic business book (Moneyball ), a fun movie based on that book (Brad Pitt as Beane), and God knows how many M.B.A. case studies and MIT grads inundating baseball teams with their theorems and résumés. But as an actual consumer product, this brainiac, pitching-dominant version of baseball was not much fun to watch.

“Look, there’s nothing wrong with analytics,” Manfred told me. “The problem is, they have been used to solve for one thing: ‘How do I win baseball games?’ That’s a very narrow goal when you think about the business overall.” Manfred, who started working in baseball as an outside counsel in 1987, joined the league full-time in 1998 as the executive vice president for labor relations and human resources. Fidgety and intense, he can evince the aloof manner of a lawyer-bureaucrat who quite obviously never played the game. He also talks like this: “Analytics can quite frankly ignore what your business optimization should look like in terms of revenue.”

As a practical matter, he says, statistical probabilities take time to process and disseminate. A bench coach, for instance, might notice something from the dugout. Then he might consult a spreadsheet and call to the batter, who then might step out of the batter’s box for a few seconds while he receives the information. The catcher might then try to adjust the pitch sequence, or adjust an already complicated set of signs, which might necessitate a visit to the mound.

Another example: the shift. Refined data have helped teams become more precise at placing their defenders where opposing batters are most likely to hit the ball, and at adjusting for specific counts. Against certain left-handed pull hitters, shortstops would routinely move to the right of second base, joining the second and first basemen on a lopsided infield. This wasted several more seconds—moving the players around—and also a lot of offense: Singles and doubles that were once smashed through infield holes became momentum-killing outs.

photo of detail of Fenway Park scoreboard
The scoreboard on Fenway Park’s famous Green Monster, April 26 (Tony Luong for The Atlantic)

Beyond the cold tyranny of numbers, the culture of baseball had evolved in the direction of dead time. Every team, for instance, embraced mental-skills coaching, which encouraged players to “slow the game down” with assorted breathing, visualization, and relaxation techniques. Likewise, certain batter’s-box tics—such as the Red Sox Hall of Famer David Ortiz spitting on his hands and clapping them together—had become legendary. They were also widely imitated. John Stanton, the chair of the Mariners and a longtime proponent of the new rules as chair of the league’s joint competition committee, which oversees rules and on-field issues, witnessed this when he coached his sons’ Little League teams. Robinson Canó, a star infielder who played five years for the Mariners, had a very particular method of adjusting his batting gloves after each pitch. “And then all of a sudden I see my 6-year-old and my 12-year-old doing the same thing,” Stanton told me. Similar delays were breaking out all over the field. “The dynamic was, we were teaching a whole new generation to walk around the back of the mound every time they threw the ball,” he said.

“If we had let this game evolve on its own, we were on our way to an unwatchable sport,” Epstein told me. He left the Cubs after the 2020 season and went on to join Major League Baseball as a consultant, to help reverse the tailspin that had befallen the game itself. He shared a few key data points that illustrated the grim trend lines he’d been up against when he joined the rescue squad. In 2021, Epstein’s first season as a consultant, major-league games averaged a record three hours and 11 minutes; that’s a full 42 minutes longer than the two hours and 29 minutes they averaged in 1976. What’s more, not much was happening between the endless time-outs, rosin-bag ruminations, elbow-pad modifications, and testicle readjustments. This was especially true on offense. In 2022, nonpitchers had their lowest batting average of all time: .243. The strikeout rate had risen to 22.4 percent, approaching the rate that two of the best strikeout pitchers in history, Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan, had achieved over their career. As noted by my Atlantic colleague Derek Thompson, “In the century and a half of MLB history covered by the database Baseball Reference, the 10 years with the most strikeouts per game are the past 10.”

“So what’s it going to look like 10 years from now, when the league is hitting .215?” Epstein said. “Who’s going to watch that?”

After my spring-training brush with Juan Soto, Glen Caplin, an MLB PR executive, walked me through brief visits with the managers of both the Padres and the Mariners. It was a cool Cactus League morning of luminous sun and green grass (cracking of bats, thudding of mitts, Shoeless Joe emerging from the cacti). Fans began pulling into the Peoria Sports Complex for the 1:10 p.m. game. Bob Melvin, the Padres manager, stationed himself in a small patio area outside the locker room and addressed reporters. Melvin, a former big-league catcher now leading his fourth team, has the weary, seen-it-all manner of an exemplary baseball man. He allowed that it was unfortunate that the slowing of the game had repelled generations of potential fans. But he also spoke of the phenomenon with remove: This was not his problem.

“I’ve noticed it, but I don’t really care,” he told me. In other words, Melvin would much rather win a game in four hours than lose in two. Everyone affiliated with the Padres, or any other team, would say the same.

“From a baseball-operations standpoint, you just don’t have the bandwidth to think about the fan experience,” Epstein told me. “It’s a zero-sum game. If you want to win five more games, you have to take those five wins away from another team. All of your thinking, all of your R&D, is geared to doing that.” When Epstein was leading the analytics revolution in baseball as a Moneyball guru for the Red Sox and then the Cubs, I asked him, did he ever consider the unintended harm he might be causing the game? “No,” he said. “It was all about how to prevent one more run and score one more run.”

Players and managers might talk about “growing the game” and “attracting new fans,” but it usually comes off as lip service. “We are in the entertainment business, and we have to understand that, keeping it as fan-friendly as we can,” Scott Servais, the Seattle manager, who was sitting in his office, told me. The Mariners’ clubhouse dog, Tucker, a yellow lab–retriever mix, kept scurrying in and out of the room (apparently hungry). What happens, I asked, if “fan friendliness” conflicts with “player or manager friendliness”?

“We’re in the entertainment business,” Servais said again. His voice assumed the dutiful monotone of a hostage video. But as we spoke, I began to believe that Servais, another former catcher, who was participating in his 35th spring training, was sincere. I asked him if he ever worried about the state of the game.

“Yes, I do,” Servais told me. He paused. “I’m trying to decide if I want to say this or not”—always a sentence that makes a reporter’s ears perk up. He glanced at his PR babysitters. “There are games when I’m sitting there in the dugout, and I will think, This is boring,” Servais said. “And I’ve been part of this game my whole life. This is boring. It’s three up, three down. No action.”

If there is one team that has bought into baseball’s acceleration campaign, it is the Mariners, led by Stanton, the chair of MLB’s joint competition committee. Stanton has steeped himself in the trend lines of tedium that have stricken the sport. He has also studied how other sports leagues have adjusted their rules to enliven games: The NBA’s 24-second shot clock eliminated laborious stall tactics; the NFL made it harder for defenders to manhandle receivers, leading to an explosion of passing offense.

Given Stanton’s dual roles—as chief of the Mariners and champion of the pitch clock—I asked how he would feel if his team wound up winning the World Series on a clock violation. Stanton laughed, then stipulated that he would always prefer that a game not be decided by a rule infraction. But, he said, “as the managing partner of the one team in baseball that has never been to the World Series, if we get there as a result of an earthquake that hits the other 29 markets, we will still take it.”

Sword and Epstein, two of the founding fathers of the New Baseball, were in Arizona to witness the Mariners and Padres inaugurate the pitch-clock era. I found Sword tapping away on his phone outside the San Diego clubhouse before the game, his cheeks an even darker hue of cardinal red than usual. Normally a relaxed and comfortable presence, Sword was a conspicuous basket case today. He was leaning against the door of a closet marked Isolation Room, preparing to do a final consult with the umpires and officials from both clubs and then visit the press box to check in with the stadium’s pitch-clock operator.

photo of man in collared shirt against green background
Morgan Sword, tasked by Major League Baseball with orchestrating the changes designed to speed up the sport. (Tony Luong for The Atlantic)

A few minutes before the first pitch, I settled into a lower box seat behind home plate, with Epstein to my left, and Sword and Caplin to my right. Epstein wore a cap pulled low over his forehead and kept his hands buried in his pockets. He appeared more subdued than Sword—or maybe fatigued, given the spirited reunion he had enjoyed the night before with a bunch of his old pals from the Cubs at a raucous Mexican steak house in Scottsdale (fire dancers, infinite tequila). Epstein looked to be in desperate need of a nap, which, thanks to the new rules, should now be available to him sooner. “The pitch clock is great for hangovers,” he declared.

Epstein majored in American studies at Yale, and was hired by the Red Sox at 28, making him the youngest general manager in major-league history to that point. His curse-crushing résumé has earned him boy-genius-for-life status, even though he will turn 50 this year. Epstein and I first met in 2012, when I interviewed him in Chicago for an anthology of profiles that I contributed to about Semitic sports heroes, called Jewish Jocks. “Is this a pamphlet or a book?” Epstein had asked me when I’d first approached him, which immediately won me over, even though he’d already earned my eternal gratitude for his heroic Red Sox deeds. (Disclosure: I am totally in the tank for this man.)

Epstein had served on previous versions of the competition committee during his tenures with the Red Sox and the Cubs, and wished to remain involved in rule-and-reform debates after he left. He wrote Manfred a long letter in 2020, with recommendations on how to measure fan sentiment, develop new guidelines, and realize “the best version of baseball.” Manfred hired him as a part-time consultant, but not without ambivalence. Epstein is a brilliant and visionary figure in baseball, with a high profile and Hall of Fame cachet. This gave Manfred pause, something the commissioner was more open with me about than I would have expected.

“I’ll be honest with you; Theo’s a big presence,” Manfred told me. “When you bring somebody in like that, it’s like, how is he gonna fit with the people who are here?” He twice noted that Epstein was “really active with the press” and also wondered, “Is his messaging going to be our messaging?”

Manfred emphasized that Epstein was hired to complement MLB’s existing staff. “I wasn’t out there looking for Theo,” he said, and reiterated that “the quarterback” of this project is Sword. “Not Theo, okay?”

Sword, for his part, sounded almost starstruck to be collaborating with Epstein. A product of the Moneyball generation himself, Sword views Epstein—a nonplayer who transformed the game—as a major inspiration. They had a jocular, easy rapport as they watched the Padres–Mariners game, rooting for one outcome above all: a brisk and glitchless contest with lots of base runners, preferably ending in less than two and a half hours.

Seattle’s Kolten Wong stepped in to lead off against San Diego’s Nick Martinez at 1:11 p.m. It was 62 degrees and sunny. Wong struck out, center fielder Julio Rodríguez grounded a single into left, and within a few minutes I barely noticed those big numbers counting down over the outfield fence. A minute later came history.

“So that was the first violation,” Epstein said. I hadn’t even noticed. Yes, Epstein said, it was on the hitter, San Diego’s Manny Machado, who had not settled into the box in time to face the Seattle left-hander Robbie Ray. The home-plate umpire, Ryan Blakney, called time and pointed to his wrist to signal a violation on Machado.

Both Epstein and Sword watched replays several times on their phones. Could the violation have been intentional? I had wondered if certain star players with mutinous tendencies (for instance, Machado) might engage in pitch-clock civil disobedience. Regardless, Machado was penalized a strike—the count was now 0–1—and would go down as the first pitch-clock scofflaw in baseball history; he then singled to left. (Six weeks later, Machado became the first player to be ejected over a pitch-clock violation after he called the home-plate umpire, Ron Kulpa, a “fucking douchebag,” per lipreading sources.)

The Padres and Mariners skipped right along, reaching the fifth inning after just an hour and five minutes. I mentioned to Epstein how smoothly everything appeared to be going—not just this game, but all of spring training, how little friction and complaint there seemed to be. Who have been the loudest critics? I asked him. Epstein did not hesitate.

“Online commenters.”

animated gif showing a series of photos from baseball game: people eating, cheering, mascots
Fan scenes from game day at Citi Field, May 7 (Tony Luong for The Atlantic)

Entering the bottom of the ninth, the Mariners were up 3–2, and—far more important—the game had a good shot at coming in under two hours, 30 minutes. With one out, we were at 2:23, and history was in the hands of a bunch of roster stragglers. A walk, then a strikeout. “We’re at 2:25,” Caplin reported. The Padres shortstop Jackson Merrill singled to left, then third baseman Matthew Batten was hit by a pitch, and uh-oh. The Mariners’ pitching coach stepped out of the dugout. “Okay, you might be about to see a pitching change, which would really fuck us,” Epstein said. Phew, it was only a mound visit. San Diego’s right fielder David Dahl stepped into the box at 2:28. He flied out to right field to end the game in a brisk two hours, 29 minutes.

“We did it, baby,” Epstein said, pumping his fist in celebration of a triumph that obviously surpasses everything else he’s ever achieved in baseball.

When I first set out on this story, I imagined an obituary. Baseball’s plodding demise was the hook. The game was mortally ill. Its tempo was poorly suited to the age. Its leaders were overmatched. Manfred made for a perfectly peevish face of the collapse. He had a special gift for making matters worse. In 2020, after the Astros were caught in a sign-stealing caper, Manfred declined to revoke their ill-gotten World Series trophy from 2017, dismissing its significance as a “piece of metal.” He later apologized (just making “a rhetorical point,” he explained). During the labor impasse last March, a camera caught him practicing his golf swing on the day MLB announced it would be canceling games. Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman twice referred to the commissioner as “Manclown.”

But as it turns out, game times are down, ratings are up, and the new rules—especially the pitch clocks—are drawing raves. “If we’d had a pitch clock my entire career,” the Dodgers’ manager, Dave Roberts, told the columnist Rick Reilly, “I might have learned how to play the violin by now.” As of mid-May, game times were averaging two hours and 37 minutes, almost half an hour less than the average game in 2022. Batting averages were up 12 points. (Sadly, this did not extend to my man Soto, who got off to a terrible start at the plate—through April, he was hitting 62 points lower than his career average.)

Manfred has no idea how to process all this good news. He always looks like he is bracing for a light tower to fall on his head. I kept hitting him with more sunny indicators—good fan surveys, few hiccups with the new rules—and he kept wincing as if he thought I was taunting him. But my sentiment was genuine. I told him that for the first time, I’d purchased the MLB.TV package this season ($139.99), and have probably watched more games in April and May alone than in all of the past five years combined.

On a typical night, as the rest of my family settles in to watch some weird Netflix show about sociopathic British teenagers, I open my laptop to catch the Sox, who got off to a fast start, in both senses of the word—winning games at rapid speeds. They managed a remarkable 14 comeback victories through mid-May. Right fielder Alex Verdugo alone has accounted for three walk-off hits, followed by delirious postgame interviews in which he tries, with limited success, to get through them without swearing (repeatedly). And it’s all usually over in time for that night’s NBA or NHL playoff action to crush my good mood and poison my dreams before bed (RIP Bruins, Celtics).

photo of empty Fenway Park looking toward home plate from outfield
An off day at Fenway, April 26. Later that day, the Orioles would beat the Red Sox in Baltimore, 6–2, in two hours and 37 minutes—the average length of a game this season. (Tony Luong for The Atlantic)

It’s still early with the pitch clocks. The effects of sped-up games on injuries, especially to pitchers, bear monitoring over the full season. Inevitably, violations will be called—or not called—in high-stakes situations. Fiascoes are likely. So, for that matter, is the next scandal or existential crisis that baseball—being baseball—will find a way to inflict on itself, and somehow make worse. And everyone will then go back to blaming Manfred for everything, including the earthquake that ends baseball once and for all, except in Seattle, city of champions.

So far, though, 2023 has been a joy. I am becoming reacquainted with box scores. Sword told me he brought his 6-year-old to Mets Opening Day at Citi Field and they made it through all nine innings—another historic first. From what I’ve observed (a very scientific sample), fans are looking less at their phones, for fear of missing something.

Later in the spring, I concluded my baseball reclamation journey with an outing to Nationals Park, where Washington’s woeful squad was hosting the Cleveland Guardians on a sunny Saturday. Before the game, I visited with Terry Francona, Cleveland’s manager, ostensibly to get his view on the pitch clock, but mostly because I wanted to profusely thank him—consummate professional that I am—for his glorious life’s work of managing the World Series–winning Red Sox of 2004 and 2007.

I arrived at the Cleveland clubhouse two hours before the 4:05 p.m. game and, of course, spent several minutes waiting around. The players all looked 14 years old. Most wore headphones and stared deep into their phones. A small group played cards, while one of them counted out $100 bills on the arm of a couch. A Cleveland PR guy informed me that “Tito”—as Francona is known—was ready, and led me into the manager’s office. I had 10 minutes, three of which I spent on egregious New England fanboying.

Pitch clocks have required an adjustment, Francona told me. Especially for lifers like him. “I’ve been watching the game one way for 44 years, and now all of a sudden it’s different,” he said. What slowed baseball down to begin with? Francona mentions a few contributors: among others, walk-up music—the modern practice of ballparks blaring a batter’s self-selected song as he comes to the plate. Before, hitters might pause to hear their selection to its completion. But that’s harder now, especially if the pitcher is ready to go. “So many players have shticks, it started to take over the game,” Francona said. I asked what his shtick was.

“I have none,” he replied immediately. “My shtick is I hope we play good.”

As I was finishing this article, Josh Rawitch, from the Hall of Fame, let me know that the museum had secured—and for this we can be grateful—the “ClockCom” buzzer that had alerted Ron Kulpa, the third-base umpire on Opening Day at Wrigley Field, to the first pitch-clock violation to ever occur in a regular-season game.

Baseball’s obsession with preserving its keepsakes through the generations is part of its charm, as though the sport is constantly adding new sepia-toned episodes to its perpetual Ken Burns documentary. But from the discussions I’ve had with the various custodians of America’s pastime, they clearly do understand that for the game to capture new and younger cohorts of fans, it needs to be more than just the sum of its immutable traditions.

Before I left the MLB offices for the last time, I stopped to visit Sword, who had just finished watching his daily video mashup of every infraction that had occurred at every ballpark the night before—a kind of customized RedZone package for pitch-clock-violation junkies. (Sounds like fun viewing, I said.) I mentioned to Sword that baseball sometimes seems to treat itself like one big museum piece. This seemed to amuse him. “It’s actually a perfect metaphor,” he said, “because I couldn’t drag my kids to a museum.”

The idea is that baseball needs to attract new fans. But there’s a parallel notion here, with life lessons embedded. Change can invigorate at any age. It’s important to keep traditions, and base runners, moving. Obsolescence is a choice.

This article appears in the July/August 2023 print edition with the headline “How Baseball Saved Itself.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.