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Thursday, December 14, 2017

When the world threatens to get you down, there is always baseball — an absorbing refuge, an alternate reality entirely unto itself. To a person of my temperament, the MLB package on satellite TV constitutes the entertainment bargain of the century. A man can read and write only so many hours a day.

Sit down, put your feet up, turn on the Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, etc. and it’s certain that He Who Shall Not Be Named, won’t be. Regardless of the follies and imbecilities on the news networks, the focus is on the never-ending narrative and deep minutiae of the game.

There can be controversy, even fierce argument. How dumb were the Red Sox not to sign a power-hitter over the winter? Can a third baseman be found to fill that void? Who to trade? You can’t get something for nothing.

On the tactical level, what was Farrell thinking about bringing Kimbrel on in the eighth? And so on. Any serious fan can talk about such things for hours.

To hear some people tell it, though, the sport’s in trouble. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred worries that the pace of the game is too slow to tear millennials away from their iPhones. No less an authority than conservative columnist (and baseball savant), George F. Will complains that the games are too long: “This year the average nine-inning game is 3 hours and 4 minutes, up 4 minutes from last year and 14 minutes from 2010.”

Actually, that seems about right to me.

Will also frets that there are too many walks, too many strikeouts, too few balls put in play, maybe even too many home runs. Too many relief pitchers over 6-5 throwing 95 mph fastballs at batters swinging from their heels instead of bunting, executing hit-and-run plays, and playing old-fashioned, hit ‘em where they ain’t country hardball.

Few seasoned observers watching all those home runs flying out this season doubt that the baseballs have been “juiced” somehow — although people have been saying this since the 1950s to ritual denials.

If so, it surprises me that some enterprising physics professor can’t prove the contention one way or the other.

But hey, it beats arguing about steroid junkies and Pete Rose.

“MLB’s worsening pace of play,” Will warns, “will not attract generations shaped by ubiquitous entertainments.”

Problem is, nothing in the physical world will tear addicts away from their glowing screens. I sometimes used to tell people who find baseball boring that I found them boring. But the truth is that I became obsessed playing endless hours as a lad. If I’d been good enough I’d have kept playing until they retired my number.

My wife’s childhood friend Brooks Robinson did that, and I pretty much decided I needed to marry her when he gave us World Series tickets one year. She shyly asked would I take her? Um, yeah. I definitely will. Kids who play the game love the game. That’s basically how it goes.

OK confession time: one reason I don’t care so much about long games is that the DVR is my friend. If the broadcast begins at 6 p.m., I begin watching around 7:30, giving me 90 minutes to burn. I watch only commercials featuring Lilly, the endearing AT&T girl.

A reliever ambles in from the bullpen, takes eight warmup pitches, and then there’s a conference at the mound. I zip through the whole thing in maybe 30 seconds. Play ball!

On my TV, that three hour game runs maybe 2:15. Doesn’t everybody do this at home? Why not?

That said, there are several simple rule changes that would definitely perk up the action. First, and most obvious, a 20-second clock between pitches. Some guys just work too slowly on the mound. It’d make them concentrate better, and keep infielders on their toes. It’s already working in the minor leagues.

Second, designated hitters in both leagues. A few pitchers, like San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner, can hit. So let him hit every day. The rest are wasting everybody’s time. The DH extends player careers and makes for more offense.

Third, keep instant replay, but limit umps to 90 seconds. They’re not negotiating the Treaty of Versailles.

No to robo-umps calling strikes. Humans play this game.

Fourth, and maybe most controversial, do away with formerly rare, now-ubiquitous (and stifling) defensive shifts. You want more situational hitting? More singles, doubles, hit-and-run plays? I’m with Yankees manager Joe Girardi: The rule should be two infielders positioned on either side of second base.

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson has another idea. “I would require a pitcher to throw to three hitters,” he told the New York Post. “One, it would speed up the game. Two, and more important, it would change the dynamics of the game in the late innings.”

Boy, would it. Alas, too much to be acceptable to traditionalists like me.