On Oct. 11, 1972, the baseball playoffs – in their fourth year of existence, nobody yet referred to them as ALCS or NLCS – grew up. As someone who watched the end of that Wednesday’s first game (having just gotten home from high school) and the entirety of the second, I’d argue that it remains the best one-day tandem of games any October has produced.
In Game 4 of the American League playoffs, the Oakland A’s scored two runs in the 10th inning and were three outs from clinching the series. The Detroit Tigers sent six men to the plate in the bottom of the inning – single, single, walk, E-4, walk, single – and won 4-3. (Note: The second baseman who dropped San Bando’s throw on what might have been a double play was Gene Tenace, a late-inning substitution who was a catcher by trade. In the pre-DH era, A’s manager Dick Williams loved his double switches. Playing catcher and a little first base, Tenace would hit four home runs in the subsequent World Series and be named MVP.)
In the win-or-go-home Game 5 of the National League series, the Cincinnati Reds trailed the Pittsburgh Pirates, the reigning world champs, 3-2 entering the bottom of the ninth. Johnny Bench, that year’s MVP, led off with a home run off Dave Giusti. Tony Perez singled. Denis Menke singled. Giusti was pulled. Bob Moose recorded two outs. Then Moose loosed a wild pitch. George Foster, running for Perez, scored the pennant-winning run.
Got that? Two elimination games, both decided on walk-offs – though that term wouldn’t come into fashion for another 25 years – with one going to extra innings. And now I cut, albeit not quickly, to the chase:
The aggregate time of those riveting games: Five hours, 23 minutes.
On Tuesday night, the Yankees beat the Astros and the Dodgers beat the Cubs in non-elimination games, one of which didn’t require a bottom of the ninth. The aggregate time of those games: Seven hours, 16 minutes.
And now the real rub: By 2017 postseason standards, neither of Tuesday’s games was especially long. As ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick noted earlier in the day, a nine-inning playoff game was averaging three hours, 35 minutes – 10 minutes longer than last October, 21 minutes longer than in 2015.
In the games of Oct. 11, 1972, the four teams deployed a total of 17 pitchers. (Which was high for the times, but those were elimination games decided in their final at-bat.) Only one of that day’s four starting pitchers failed to work into the eighth inning. In last night’s tilts, the teams used 19 pitchers; no starter lasted more than 6-1/3 innings. Yu Darvish went the longest, and the Dodgers still needed four more arms to seal a 6-1 victory.
Pitch counts weren’t really a thing 45 years ago, largely because working the count wasn’t a focal point of any team’s game plan. Also: The 1972 games both started in the afternoon, and back then commercial breaks lasted half as long as now. Also: No replay reviews back in the day.
The way baseball is played has changed. I get that. This part of baseball hasn’t: A regulation game requires the winning team to record 27 outs. Alas, getting to 27 has come to take forever.
Game 5 of the Cubs-Nationals NLDS was a riveting thing, provided you could stay awake. It ended at 12:45 a.m. in the Eastern Time Zone, with Bryce Harper striking out against Wade Davis, who’d worked the final 2-1/3 innings. The nine-inning game lasted four hours, 37 minutes. If we go back to Game 6 of the 1975 World Series – still considered the best ever – we note that the Red Sox needed four hours and one minute to subdue the Reds on Carton Fisk’s home run off the foul pole. We also note that Fisk’s homer came in the bottom of the 12th inning.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has made pace of play a point of emphasis. MLB stadiums this season included a time clock counting down the seconds between at-bats, but it wasn’t as if a dawdling hitter cost his team five yards and a loss of down. The clock was just a reminder, and not an effective one: Per Crasnick, the average nine-inning game this season spanned three hours, five minutes – the longest ever. In this postseason, the average game has grown by a half-hour, which is ridiculous.
MLB got lucky this October: Its final four teams hail from our four biggest cities, which is dandy for TV purposes. But you have to wonder if even a Dodgers-Yankees World Series would hold our attention if every game requires a four-hour time investment. College football faces a similar length-of-games issue, but there’s a difference: Professional teams don’t have alumni. If you’re a neutral, you have to want to stick with a ponderously paced baseball game to see it through, and when the clock ticks past midnight the temptation is great to say, “Heck with this. I’ll watch the highlights in the morning.”
Game 1 of this Yankees-Astros ALDS ended 2-1. The bottom of the ninth wasn’t needed. Only five pitchers were required. The game saw four walks and 11 hits. To read that is to think it should have been, comparatively speaking, a snappy affair. Nope. It lasted three hours, 20 minutes.
Game 7 of the 1971 World Series saw the Pirates beat the Orioles 2-1. The bottom of the ninth was required. (Merv Rettenmund grounded to short off Steve Blass, who went the distance, to end it.) Four pitchers were used. There were two walks and 10 hits. Deciding a champion took two hours, 10 minutes. I say no more.