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We stand on the cusp of the 2018 baseball season, and the excitement is palpable. How invigorating to know this will be the season that Major League Baseball cuts down on all those tedious mound visits and warmup pitches, and games start to move along at a brisk pace, and young people take notice and say, “Hey, this game is pretty fun!” and ratings soar, and flowers bloom in the Wrigley Field ivy and baseball reclaims its place as America’s most popular sport.

And if you buy all that, I have some A’s 2018 playoff tickets to sell you. They’re for Game 3 at the new ballpark at Howard Terminal.

Major League Baseball is an old man with high blood pressure, osteoporosis and a need for double hip replacement, and its doctors just prescribed a mani-pedi.

Let’s be clear. I actually favor the pace-of-play rules that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced Monday. They include limiting mound visits to six per team per nine innings, plus one additional visit for every extra inning; a minor speed-up of between-inning breaks; a clock for pitching changes; and direct feed of slow-motion replays to teams’ video rooms, to speed up challenges.

Forget for a moment that the new guidelines leave plenty of room for shady workarounds. MLBers, don’t forget, are the Leonardo da Vincis of bending rules.

The 2018 changes state that when a team is out of visits, the home plate umpire has the discretion to allow an extra mound soiree if he determines that pitcher and catcher “did not have a shared understanding of the location or type of pitch that had been signaled” — the dreaded “cross-up.” Another section says the ump can give a pitcher extra time for warmup pitches if he believes the pitcher “is at a legitimate risk of injury” should he not do so. So get ready for historical highs in cross-ups and at-risk arms.

Whatever. At least Manfred is trying something.

It’s true that MLB contests have begun to drag. Average length of games went from 2 hours and 49 minutes in 2005, to 2:55 in 2007, to 3:00 in 2012, to 3:08 last season. At the same time, attendance per game has decreased in four of the past five seasons (with the one year of gain practically negligible). And local TV ratings declined for 17 of the 29 American teams in 2017. The Giants were down 28 percent (for obvious reasons). The A’s were down 17 percent (for no obvious reason).

MLB looks at the data and sees causation: Slower games are turning people off. So quicken the pace and watch the fans come flooding back.

One problem: The new pace-of-play modifications aren’t likely to have a huge effect on game times. You want to know why baseball games are taking longer? Because specialization is king now, and managers are asking their pitchers to face fewer batters. In 1998, teams used an average of 3.46 pitchers per game. In 2017, they used an average of 4.22. Another problem: rampant strikeouts. Starting in 2008, the league has set a new record for Ks-per-game every single year, climbing from 6.77 in ’08 to 8.25 last season.

Hitters are being more selective and swinging for power. Managers are making more pitching changes. And we’re all begging someone to put a damn ball in play.

And even that doesn’t get to the core of MLB’s worries. Because pace isn’t really the problem. I love baseball’s disavowal of the clock. I love its meandering flow. I love its built-in downtime. And there’s the rub. Baseball is a game built for 50-something, middle-income white guys like me.

The sport’s appeal has always been that, in some ways, it remains preserved in amber. That worked for a long time. Then it didn’t work so well. And now, in the age of Instagram and “Hard Knocks” and athlete-produced YouTube journals, the model seems broken.

Look at the NBA. It honors its tradition to some extent, but the league is thriving because it promotes its stars as individuals. Every sports fan has an opinion of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. What’s your opinion of Mike Trout, other than “He can really hit”? Trout might be one of the 10 best position players in history. He plays in a major media market. Yet he could walk down the street in most towns and no one would know him from Mike the trout fisherman.

Look at the NFL. Its numbers are down, too, inviting a dance line of hand-wringing and a litany of theories that range from “Colin Kaepernick took a knee” to “viewers are tired of seeing men break their brains.” But the NFL has lapped the field so many times that it’s years away from being challenged. Consider that the ratings for Game 5 of the 2017 National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and Cubs drew a TV rating of 3.2. The rating for the Pro Bowl three months later was 5.9. The Pro Bowl.

Baseball doesn’t have a pace problem; it has a personality problem.

Have you been to Warriors’ games? The players dance together during pregame introductions. Steph Curry gestures skyward after big 3-pointers. Draymond Green flexes after dramatic dunks. The crowd laps it up. Did you watch NFL games last season? The end zone celebrations got so elaborate that guys were doing everything short of recreating the running of the bulls at Pamplona. The audience couldn’t look away.

Compare that to Major League Baseball, where prolonged eye contact might provoke a batter to charge the mound, and the slightest shoulder shimmy by a home-run hitter will get him plunked the next time up.

The minor-league system teaches ballplayers to respect the game, tamp down their emotions and blend in with teammates. That all sounds great, but younger fans have a hard time finding the entertainment value in it. A lot of Latino players bring much more flair to the game. But the language barrier is real in Major League Baseball, and teams haven’t done a great job of connecting Dominican and Venezuelan players to their American audience.

Unfortunately for MLB, there’s no easy fix to any of this. The “unwritten rules” of conduct are deeply ingrained in baseball, and they’re highly popular with the 50-something-white-guy demographic. But MLB will continue to fade if it can’t field a product that resonates will a younger, more diverse audience.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter how many trips to the mound a manager makes. A 2-hour, 45-minute game is no better than a 3-hour, 15-minute game if the people playing it aren’t having any fun.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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