Leave baseball alone and fix high school basketball

Leave baseball alone and fix high school basketball

Major League Baseball is supposedly planning on testing a rule change at the lowest levels of the minor leagues.

A runner will automatically be placed on second base at the start of extra innings.

If the rule change works out, the plan would be to introduce it into Major League play in coming years. Last year they experimented with a pitch clock in certain minor leagues.

This is yet another rule changed aimed at “speeding up the pace of play,” which translates into getting the game over faster.

I’ve never understood this. Never in my life have I attended a Major League Baseball game or even watched one on TV and thought, “Man, I wish this game would just get over.”

Baseball is supposed to move slowly. Situational drama — sometimes slow and agonizing — is what makes baseball better than any other sport.

Situational drama is what made Game 7 of last year’s World Series so exciting. It’s why we remember Dave Roberts’ steal. It’s why we hang on to every pitch with runners on the corners.

You can order a dog and a beer in the middle of these big moments and not miss a thing.

As mostly a baseball purist, I see very little wrong with the national pastime. Baseball does not need saving, and it does not need to be fixed.

Instead, we should worry about fixing basketball. Or, more specifically, we should worry about improving Montana high school basketball by introducing the shot clock.

For exhibit A, I take you back to Feb. 22, 2013. That was the date when Butte Central’s boys’ basketball team beat Dillon in triple overtime in the semifinals of the Southwestern A Divisional tournament at the Maroon Activities Center.

The teams played for 44 minutes before the Maroons finally won 38-35 — on a steal and three-point play by Kale Guldseth.

Neither team scored during the first or second 4-minute overtime period. During the first overtime, each team had one possession. Yes, one possession.

That game had great situational drama. It was like the bases were loaded with nobody out in the bottom of the ninth. You could cut the tension in the air with a knife.

I loved that game, but probably because I love baseball so much.

People who paid to watch a basketball game, though, should have received at least a partial refund. That is not what basketball is all about.

Not since the days when they used actual baskets was basketball a sport meant to see a 38-35 final score. That should be a halftime score.

Unfortunately, that type of score is more and more common. Butte High played Billings West a couple of weeks back, and the Civic Center crowd was treated to a 46-37 West win.

Not long ago, scores were always in the 60s and 70s — on the low end. Now, 70 points in a game is as rare as a Sasquatch sighting.

These scores are not because the boys and girls in Montana cannot shoot a basketball. Rather, the scores are low because slowing the game down is the latest coaching norm.

I blame it mostly on former Butte High coach John Thatcher, and I can pinpoint the date when, I think, he changed Montana basketball forever.

It was Feb. 27, 2004. That’s when the Bulldogs took on a high-scoring machine from Billings West in the semifinal of the Class AA state tournament in Missoula.

The Golden Bears entered the game averaging more than 80 points per game. Senior guard Chase Sukut entered as West’s No. 5 all-time scorer.

Thatcher pulled an all-night film session to figure out how to take away the Golden Bears’ strength, and he came up with a perfect game plan.

Butte High played great defense and slowed down the tempo. Chad Jonart scored 27 points, and the Bulldogs won 40-35.

Butte High fans loved it. West fans hated it. Neutral observers fell asleep.

So many coaches have followed Thatcher’s lead in the 13 years since that win. Instead of playing a run-and-gun style, the teams play at a snail’s pace.

You don’t have to study official stat sheets to know that the scoring average of high school basketball games has dropped off drastically. Or bigly, as we’re supposed to say now.

We used to see higher scoring games back in the days before the 3-point line than we do now.

Remember when Butte Central played Livingston in the 1985 championship game? The Rangers won 99-97 in double overtime.

Sure Box Elder scored 95 points Class C state championship game last year, but that’s because most reservation teams still play an exciting brand of basketball. Most Class AA and A team games would have to see about 10 overtimes to get that kind of a score.

Controlling the tempo is the best bet for a team to beat an opponent with more talent. What better way to slow a super star down than by holding onto the basketball?

Coaches are getting good at this, too. Montana is full of coaches who study film and devise defensive game plans that slow down even the best players. We see it all the time.

Since most Montana basketball teams don’t include future NCAA Division I players, this trend is going to continue for the unforeseeable future.

There is only one way to stop this, and that is a shot clock.

A 30-second shot clock would tremendously improve the sport — from a fan and media point of view, at least.

Remember the commercials from the 1980s with the Pointer Sisters singing “I’m so excited” during the “NBA, it’s fantastic” campaign?

Somewhere along the line, Montana high school basketball went from being fantastic to being your golf partner who just won’t hit the damn ball. They have almost completely taken the word “basket” out of basketball.

The biggest roadblock for a shot clock in Montana is financial. The cost of fitting every gym in the state with a clock would be substantial. Many schools can’t afford it.

That problem can be fixed with four words: “The (insert company name here) shot clock.”

Under the right proposal, you’d have big companies fighting for that kind of marketing opportunity.

High school hoops in Montana is not broken. It’s great. I would take high school hoops over college or NBA basketball every day of the week.

But there is a reason why the Butte Civic Center isn’t as full as it used to be. It’s scores like 46-37.

When Butte High scored a bunch of points in 1989, the gym was packed. Sure, the Bulldogs were always winning back then, and everybody loves a winner. They were also incredibly fun to watch.

Gary Kane didn’t hold the ball for a minute and 40 seconds at a time.

There’s no reason today’s high school basketball games can’t be just as fun to watch as it was back then. They would be if we forced the coaches to open things up.

A 30-second shot clock would do just that and more.

More seats would be filled, and nobody would want a partial refund after a triple-overtime game.

— Bill Foley, who is always looking for a refund, writes a column that appears Tuesday on ButteSports.com. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.

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