Chicago White Sox pitcher Lance Lynn isn’t bashful when talking about food. Last season, after cameras caught Lynn and former Sox third base coach Joe McEwing having a spirited exchange in the dugout, Lynn calmly explained the next day that they were merely discussing what makes for a better cut of beef: filet mignon or rib-eye. These are the vital conversations that take place during a baseball game, a game notorious for taking three-or-so hours.
So it should come as no surprise that food and drinks were a topic during an early March episode of NBC Sports Chicago’s White Sox Talk podcast where Lynn shared his thoughts about Major League Baseball’s rule changes for the upcoming 2023 season. This year, the MLB is adopting a barrage of new rules that aim to improve the game from the fan’s perspective. The bases are bigger and the league is limiting the number of times pitchers can throw to first base. In theory, this would increase stolen bases. Rules will now restrict infielder positioning, which should mean more hits, runs, and action.
New this year, the MLB is implementing a pitch clock. Pitchers will either have 15 or 20 seconds to throw to home plate, depending if there are runners on base. If time expires, the umpires will penalize pitchers by calling a ball. Likewise, if hitters fidget too much and take too long between pitches, the umps will assess a strike. The rules went into effect last season for Minor League Baseball and the changes are credited with shortening games by an average of 25 minutes. Major Leaguers are adjusting as they try the rules out during Spring Training. So far, fans seem to like them.
But a sped-up game could cut into another ballpark tradition — beer sales. “When it’s all said and done, we want to speed up the game so fans don’t have to sit there as long,” Lynn says in the podcast episode. But he also singles out an integral part of the ballpark experience — commerce — including the treasured tradition of enjoying $12 beers: “It’s going to be interesting when they don’t buy as much merchandise and stuff.”
“And beer!” podcast host Chuck Garfien blurts out to finish Lynn’s thought.
It stands to reason that if these new rules shorten the game, then the ripple effect will mean less time for beer vendors to serve fans. So will fans have less time to spend money on peanuts and Cracker Jack? Or for that matter, how many beers from Pilot Project Brewing, new to Guaranteed Rate Field in 2023, will be consumed?
“Our No. 1 priority is to make sure the play on the field represents the best possible version of the sport. We have seen the pitch timer make the game crisper and more engaging for our fans, which is ultimately the most important outcome for MLB and its Clubs,” says Chris Marinak, MLB chief operations and strategy officer, in a statement to Eater.
Even though there may be growing pains, the MLB is confident that, after testing the rules out in the minor leagues, that change is for the betterment of the game. Over in Dayton, Ohio, where the High-A team affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds play, there haven’t been any effects on food sales, including the Dayton Dragons’ signature smoked meats at Day Air Ballpark.
“I think the fans were thrilled. I think the team was happy. I think all of our staff was happy,” says Nick Sakellariadis, co-owner of the Dayton Dragons. “This was really a great development in terms of easing wear and tear, and putting into the game what people want: more action, less idle time.”
Sakellariadis says baseball fans are creatures of habit who don’t check the time at games. They have an internal alarm telling them when to eat and drink, and much of that’s tied to the end of the inning. “People just run by inning measurement rather than retain what the clock says,” he says. “Therefore speeding up the game did not disrupt the fans.”
This jives with reporting from the Washington Post last season quoting Brooklyn Cyclones GM Kevin Mahoney, who said numbers didn’t show a “huge impact.” However, Mahoney added that he saw fewer fans leaving games early, which is a good sign for vendors.
Baseball America attempted to answer the question, reporting that workers were happy to come home earlier. There is no data on if hourly workers earned less. Reps for Unite Here, the union that represents vendors at several stadiums across the country, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The changes may antagonize a few baseball purists, but Sakellariadis reminds them that putting games on TV also lengthened games to accommodate commercials between innings. Fans got over it.
But Ryan Wagner, who has a particularly unique perspective, isn’t so sure. He’s Guinness’s national brand ambassador and head of marketing and community partnerships at Open Gate Brewery. Wagner now lives in Chicago as Guinness prepares to open a brewpub in the Fulton Market area. Before joining Guinness, he served 10 years as the public address announcer for the Baltimore Orioles at the Ballpark at Camden Yards. He also served as co-host of MLB Network’s Fan Cave.
“That a significant amount of time,” Wagner says, mentioning that traditional ballpark beer sales end after the seventh inning. “I wonder if we’re going to see sales beyond the seventh inning.”
Sakellariadis says the Dragons would never consider that. There’s too much worry about drunken driving and other safety issues. However, some fans — the ones who excel at remembering vendor’s names and possess the wherewithal to leave large tips — have been skirting the rule for years by building relationships with vendors. However, those vendors risk suspension.
It’s only been a few weeks into the season and the Milwaukee Brewers are already seeing changes. They’re experimenting with selling beer until the eighth inning. A Brewer official told MLB.com: “We’re probably looking at selling beer for the same amount of time by extending to the eighth inning that we did last year through the seventh.”
Retired beer vendor Lloyd Rutzky sold beers at Wrigley Field and Sox Park for 55 years.. “I could sell 20 beers in two minutes, and that’s when we had to pour them,” he recalls. His gut — though he stresses he’s been away from the game for a few years — is that sales will be affected one way or the other. He’s just not sure how.
On one hand, if games are shorter, folks will have to pay closer attention because the action is being condensed. Though neither Chicago team has seen a lot of postseason glory over the years (save 2005 and 2016), Rutzky recalls that, during key moments later in the game, many fans would wave him off.
But then again, he reasons, with these new rules designed to promote more action, higher-scoring games could mean longer innings and more time to enjoy a frosty beverage.
“It might be less enjoyable to work, because the busier you are, the less time you have between sales,” Rutzky says.
Smart fans also adjust to the game. They might take after former White Sox player Mark Buehrle, who has been described as “go, go, go.” As Rutzky puts it: “With a quicker pace, people seem to drink faster.”
Update: Added comment from Milwaukee Brewers and their experiments to sell beer beyond the seventh inning.