The starting pitcher for the Boston Home Inspectors White Sox, 10-year-old Aidan Fitzgerald had not thrown the first pitch, but in the stands, his dad was already feeling the tension — about how long the day’s Little League game would take.
“I hate to hear we’re playing at Evans Field,” said Patrick Fitzgerald, casting an accusatory glance at the Southie field’s towering lights, beloved by grade schoolers for their power to extend games after dark, dreaded by some parents for the same reason.
“It’s good for him to be part of a team,” Fitzgerald said, “but he also plays hockey, and that is guaranteed one hour, which is kind of nice.”
As surely as baseball is a rite of spring, bemoaning the length, pace, and frequency of youth games has become its own ritual.
Even for the majority of parents who love the game, and love that their children play, the weekend doubleheaders, the mad dash to games that begin before the workday ends, and the lack of a clock can combine to create a perfect storm of modern family pressures — where demands pile up and time is in short supply.
As Andover mom Tracey Spruce put it in a Facebook post: “I love my son dearly, but I have to say that watching a second-grade Little League game may very well be the Tenth Circle of Hell.”
Reached by phone before a game, Spruce expanded: “The kids are picking flowers, and it seems completely disorganized. Let’s say you have a kid who actually gets a hit, then the shortstop misses it, four kids bump into each other. Someone throws it to first base, but it’s an overthrow . . .”
‘It’s all so fleeting that you know you should enjoy it, but it’s hard . . . ’
The whining is generally cheerful. But the painful truth is even as Little League proudly celebrates its 75th anniversary, it is facing decreasing participation, nationally and locally.
Last year, 5,600 Little League teams played in Massachusetts, about 500 fewer than five years ago, according to the league’s state information officer, John Berardi.
He blames competition from other sports and activities, and a slight decrease in the population of school-age children — but decidedly not the pace or length of the contests, which generally run between 90 minutes and two hours.
“We’re pretty happy with the games,” he said.
Little League as a whole does not set time limits beyond restrictions about playing in the dark. Yet many local leagues, including South Boston’s, do set limits (although, as even the timekeepers readily acknowledge, the limits are not always observed).
In Newton, after years of listening to clock-driven parents, this year the board of Newton West Little League capped games for younger players at one hour, and at two for older players.
“The parents felt the games dragged on,” said president Van Eswara.
John Salemme was one of those parents.
“The T-ball games were upwards of 2½ or 3 hours,” he said. “The players couldn’t get anyone out — it was almost never-ending.”
But on the bright side, he added, the long games did allow working mothers and fathers to put in a full day at the office, drive home in rush-hour traffic, and still make it to at least part of the games.
“It’s a nice chance to hang out with other parents,” he said.
The mixed feelings can leave even the most devoted Little League parents torn. The games can be a great way to meet other parents, catch up on town news, and show support for your child. But they can also get in the way of homework, family dinner time, or even sleep.
“I don’t want to say this in a complaining way, because the games are fun,” said Elaine Herrmann Blais of Milton, “but we’ve had games [that started at 7:30] go until 10:15, and when they get home, they are exhausted and you have to have the fight about tooth brushing.”
Meanwhile, some parents’ preference for fast-paced games — soccer, lacrosse, basketball, even hockey, with its chilly sidelines and early schedules — is part of baseball’s larger popularity challenge that extends all the way to the majors.
As Major League Baseball game times have lengthened — by more than 30 minutes compared with 40 years ago, according to a 2013 Globe story — officials have tried to speed things up. In 2008, MLB asked teams to enforce time-related rules already on the books, but pace of play remains an issue.
Last year, Commissioner Bud Selig asked the Red Sox to study the situation and make recommendations. (The team’s games average 3 hours and 11 minutes for nine innings, according to Sam Kennedy, the team’s chief operating officer.)
Since December, 30 members of the Red Sox front-office staff have spent 350 hours watching tapes of every regular-season 2013 game, looking out for action-slowing culprits such as pitching changes, inning breaks, and batters stepping out of the box. (The Boston Globe is owned by John Henry, the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox.)
With the goal of boosting customer satisfaction, the team is also conducting a fan survey. Among the questions: Would you watch if the games were 15 minutes shorter? What about 30 minutes? Does it bother you when the manager argues with the umps? When the pitching coach visits the mound?
The Sox are still analyzing the data and do not plan to release the findings with MLB until around the All-Star Game in mid-July, but Kennedy says they have already noted the need for better enforcement of the rule that gives a pitcher 12 seconds to deliver the ball to the plate.
But as every parent knows, pokey behavior — on the field and off — can be hard to regulate, a reality some parents deal with by doing one, or all, of the following during games: communing with their phones, chatting with other parents (often missing their kids’ at bat), grocery shopping, running home to do laundry.
“You can get stuff done during the game,” Lauren Downey, the mother of two White Sox players, said as she watched Sunday’s game at Evans Field.
“I’ve read a couple of James Patterson books,” said Anne Spence, the mother of a player for the White Sox’ opponents, the Dunkin’ Donuts Mets.
“It’s all so fleeting that you know you should enjoy it,” said Kimberly Kennedy, a Westwood baseball mom who recently logged 11 hours of spectatorship during a not atypical Monday-to-Friday stretch. “But it’s hard to have that perspective when you’ve already watched four hours [in one day], and it feels like it’s never going to end.”
But Dan Barry , the author of “Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game,” about a 1981 Pawtucket Red Sox game that lasted 8 hours and 25 minutes, said a two-hour game might be precisely what frenzied parents need.
“In this crazy, instant gratification of a world,” he said in an e-mail, “we need to pause, adults and children, and languorous baseball helps us to do that.”