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Why the ACC couldn't shorten baseball games when they tried (and yes, they did try)

UNC's Dallas Tessar slides safely into home

Watch a time-lapse of North Carolina's Dallas Tessar sliding safely into home to score in the fourth inning during UNC's victory over NC State at Doak Field in Raleigh Friday, April 27, 2018.
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Watch a time-lapse of North Carolina's Dallas Tessar sliding safely into home to score in the fourth inning during UNC's victory over NC State at Doak Field in Raleigh Friday, April 27, 2018.

That dull thud you heard was the conclusion to a less-than-enthusiastic experiment by the ACC to shorten the length of college baseball games during the regular season. Even the die-hard fans probably missed the whole escapade because only four of the league’s 14 teams participated.

Clemson, Miami, UNC and Virginia Tech used communication devices during conference games that eliminated the multi-leveled, time-consuming signal system between a team’s pitching coach in the dugout and the catcher behind the plate.

“If I can just speak into his ear,” said Louisville coach Dan McDonnell, “and that’s it, then that should move (the game) along.”

McDonnell is a vice president for the American Baseball Coaches Association, which studies various aspects of the game, including ways to decrease its length. The ABCA approached the Power 5 conferences a year ago with various pace-quickening experiments.

If the College World Series is any indication, the length of games has increased drastically over the years. The average time of game in the 1977 College World Series was 2:18, compared to 3:18 in 2017. From 1967 through the 1999 College World Series there were nine games that lasted longer than four hours, most of which entailed extra innings. Since 2000 there have been 17 games of four hours or longer.

“We’ve got to cater to the fans. The fans speak and the fans drive the market, TV and viewership,” McDonnell said. “One of the issues with baseball over the past several years is the length of game. So how can we speed up the game?”

NC State coach Elliott Avent talks about playing at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the victory over UNC and the Wolfpack's upcoming games against Duke, North Carolina and ECU.

As heartfelt as that might sound, its sincerity did not translate to ACC head coaches. Six programs elected to pay the $4,100 cost for the GSC Communications device, according to the ACC. Two elected not to use it, including Duke, which experimented with it during preseason practices before abandoning its use.

“I was a little leery about it,” said UNC coach Mike Fox. “I just thought I’m going to let everybody else try it for a year, then see if it’s worth $4,000. But if we’re going to spend that kind of money, we’re going to use this thing.

“It’s like anything else, the more you use it, the more you get used to it and the more you like it.”

The device is clipped to the catcher’s waistband, where a wire winds its way through his jersey to his ear. Those who have experimented with it say that ultimately wireless technology needs to be used, much like the way an offensive coordinator communicates with his quarterback in the NFL.

Duke’s catchers had difficulty with the device during preseason practices and scrimmages. For that reason, and because ACC teams were not allowed to use the device in non-conference games, head coach Chris Pollard elected not to participate in the experiment at all.

Duke coach Chris Pollard talks about the Blue Devils' upcoming three-game series against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Durham Bulls Athletic Park during a media availability Thursday, May 10, 2018.

“I do think there is going to come a day when the hands-free devices are used to actually communicate pitch calling to the plate,” Pollard said. “But, at least from my standpoint, I’d like to see improvement before we use it in a live-game setting.”

Fox said by using the device this season, some kinks have been worked out. In typical coach paranoia, according to Fox, he had to assured the communication could not be intercepted by the opposing team or listened to by fans.

From the outset, though, Fox figured (with a laugh) that any configuration allowing one-way communication with a player was worth using.

Fox talks about the Tar Heels win over Duke, preventing the Blue Devils from sweeping the series on Sunday, May 13, 2018 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C.

Then there was a late-season game against N.C. State when Fox attempted unsuccessfully to get the attention of catcher Cody Roberts, who had grown accustomed in conference games to not looking into the dugout for signs. Fox was attempting to relay a defensive alignment to Roberts.

Finally, pitching coach Robert Woodard intervened.

“You know, I can just tell him what you want,” Fox recalled Woodard saying.

“I’m like, duh,” Fox said.

Unfortunately, we will never know if the devices actually shortened games. No length-of-game stats were charted in conference games when one team or both teams used the devices. If those are compiled at the end of the season, the sample size is far too small to draw any conclusions.

Louisville’s McDonnell said there were multiple reasons his team did not use the device, including not enough time to experiment with it in the preseason, the inability to use it during the postseason, and having two first-time starting catchers who did not need another learning curve to conquer.

Yet McDonnell recognizes the inevitable.

“It’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s just another piece that’s gong to help speed up the game. That’s what we need to do. That’s our job to adapt to the culture and the time and listen to the fans. The fans want quicker games.”

Next season, all ACC teams should be required to use the device.

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