x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

No way to cut this long story short

What makes Rocktober is the major league baseball play-offs, but the length of the play-off season has now become a liability.

The Yankees’ Jorge Posada, right, applies bug spray to Mariano Rivera during a game. New rules stipulate that once a batter steps into the box, he must stay unless a stinging insect lands on him.
The Yankees’ Jorge Posada, right, applies bug spray to Mariano Rivera during a game. New rules stipulate that once a batter steps into the box, he must stay unless a stinging insect lands on him.

And so begins October, the delicious month of sports sensory overload for anyone with a passing interest in professional athletes at play. That's passing, as in: The puck, with the NHL starting on Thursday. The round ball, with the NBA commencing October 26. The oblong ball, with the NFL in full swing, its Halloween Day games taking the schedule to midpoint.

All good, but what makes Rocktober is the major league baseball play-offs. You heard right - the self-proclaimed America's pastime that is supposedly past its time, with a dawdling pace and periods of stupor interrupted by occasional spasms of action. OK, so the play-offs are imperfect. The sport's timeless nature, once embraced, is now a liability in our attention-deficit lives. Indeed, the length of games - three-and-a-half hours constitutes a quickie these days - must be addressed.

One cause we must live with: the three-minute block of television commercials each half-inning, up from two-and-a-half minutes in the regular season. They have got to pay the bills. What can be fixed - the pace of play - remains broke. Bud Selig, the MLB commissioner, has tried, with spoken and written pleas to teams and umpires, imploring them to speed things up. It must be easy to ignore a boss named Bud.

Take note, MLB: a major college baseball tournament in the spring observed a clock that required the pitcher to wind up within 20 seconds of receiving the ball. Pitchers bought in, committing no infractions, and the tempo was perceptibly quicker. Apparently, big-league umpires have too much on their minds, like how pitch-trackers and instant replays make them look bad, to bother with procrastinating hitters and hurlers.

New rule proposal: once a batter steps into the box, he must stay unless a stinging insect lands on him or he develops an itch in an area that cannot be scratched without some privacy from the cameras. To his credit, Selig has shifted some games to an earlier start, which has no bearing on their briskness but means schoolchildren and other early risers in the east and midwest can last through seven innings instead of five before going to bed.

As for those west coasters on their way home from work, missing the first inning or two while stuck in traffic, that's why BlackBerrys and satellite radio were invented. Even better, Selig intends to kick off next year's post-season on a September weekend, intending to complete the last dressing-room celebrations before Halloween. Kudos, Bud. If we are handing out treats while trying to keep track of the count (balls and strikes, not candy), the season has dragged on too long.

That said, there is much to appreciate now. The bursts of commotion, combined with undulating tension between each delivery to the plate, generates drama of the highest form. The pitcher/batter stare-downs, with the crowds hitting a jet runway's decibel level, rates as top-shelf theatre. Plus, distinguishing baseball from all other American sports' post-seasons, save hockey, is this: every participant has a chance.

In the NBA, you can draw a line through more than half of the no-hope play-off teams, and nearly as many in the NFL. Since 1997, four wild-card teams - ostensibly, the long shots - have won the World Series. Five others have reached it. Like any other, this play-off cast offers no shortage of plot lines and reasons to pay heed. The love-'em-or-loath-'em New York Yankees are in. Of course. It would not be a post-season without the pinstripes, who missed out in 2008 and, before that, 1994.

The Texas Rangers and the Cincinnati Reds are in, for the first time this century. Texas, whose payroll fell to No 27 in the major leagues, have never won a play-off series. (In fact, one win in nine games.) And they feature the redemption poster boy in sports - the recovered drug addict Josh Hamilton, a prime MVP candidate. Cincinnati have won a few. Ask your grandfather. The Philadelphia Phillies - a National League version of the Yankees, with their massive salaries - are in. And with a massive player to match in Ryan Howard.

The Minnesota Twins, with a new stadium, are in. So are the Tampa Bay Rays, who want a new stadium but are now the only team playing indoors without a retractable roof. The San Francisco Giants, with their incomparable vampire-ish pitcher Tim Lincecum, are in. So are the Atlanta Braves, whose wild-card qualifying is a farewell gift to Bobby Cox, their retiring manager. Selig, bowing to media squawking, says an expanded play-off field will be discussed in the off-season. In this corner, it will be cussed if it happens. The existing format is fine, opening with four tense best-of-five mini-series that consist of no undeserving teams, segueing into the two league championships and then the capital "S" Series. It's all over within a month.

Ah, the baseball post-season. It's no passing fancy. sports@thenational.ae