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For Whom the Ball Tolls

The Fairly Detached Observers

Jul. 16, 2008
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It’s almost a part of Major League Baseball’s yearly schedule, like Opening Day and the All-Star Game. Sometime between those two, MLB pleads with its players, managers and umpires to pick up the pace of games. It happened again in May. Somehow, completing nine innings takes upward of a half-hour longer than it did a generation ago. The Observers, who certainly can remember back that far, have noticed.

Artie: The last time I was at the ballpark I went to get a hot dog before the first pitch, and the kid at the concession stand happens to be my buddy Ernie’s nephew. Nice kid, just got his driver’s license. By the time I go back for another dog and a brew, this kid had graduated high school, joined the Army, did a stint in Iraq, got married, divorced, married again—and the sausages hadn’t even raced yet! I think these ballgames are too long, Frank.

Frank: Well, I promised some research on this, and I’ve brought evidence from when your acquaintance was indeed a little kid. Here’s a headline from The New York Times’ archive: “Baseball takes steps to speed up the game.” The date: June 9, 1995.

Artie: I’m no whiz at math, but that’s got to be 13-14 years ago.

Frank: A-plus. And a few years back, the games started edging down by a few minutes—still way longer than when we were kids, but away from the dreaded 3-hour average. But this year the trend swung back to longer, and last month Major League Baseball issued yet another plea to pick up the pace.

Artie: A plea to pick up the pace has become one of the game’s grand traditions, ain’a?

Frank: I also went to the official rules on MLB’s Web site, and there are things that, if they were actually enforced, would help. Let’s start with Rule 6.02...

Artie: Hold on. Let me grab a pen and a cocktail napkin. I better take notes in case there’s a test.

Frank: And that would be clause (a), which says, “The batter shall take his position in the batter’s box promptly.”

There also is what’s called an official “comment” on the rule, which says, “Umpires may grant a hitter’s request for ‘time’ once he is in the batter’s box, but the umpire should eliminate hitters walking out of the batter’s box without reason.

If umpires are not lenient, batters will understand that they...must remain there until the ball is pitched.” Now, every stinkin’ game we see batters get out alone—takes a pitch, doesn’t swing, and yet he steps out and dicks around with the batting gloves. Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn—now she knew how to wear gloves, those long babies that climb above the elbow. That’s a lot of glove, and yet not once did she feel the need to get up from the banquet table to yank her accouterment after every sip of champagne.

Frank: And that Holly Golightly character was definitely a swinger. As a lifelong Yankee fan it pains me to say that my favorite player, Derek Jeter, is one of the top offenders. And he’s created a generation of Little Leaguers holding up their hands to the umpire to say, “Wait until I’m ready.”

Artie: These kids today. Imagine what would’ve happened years ago if you or me ever told an authority figure, “Hey, when I’m good and ready!”

Frank: So there’s one thing the umps could enforce better. And we’ve had two examples of that at Miller Park recently, when a Brave and then a Twin wouldn’t get back in the box, so the ump waved the pitcher on and he got a free strike. But there are things that should be done about the pitchers, too; namely, Rules 8.03 and 8.04.
Artie: OK. I need to know if this test will be multiple-guess or written b.s.-say.

Frank: So 8.03 states that during every inning break or pitching change, the pitcher can have up to eight “preparatory pitches,” which “shall not consume more than one minute of time.” I did some informal timing at a couple of Brewer games recently, and that wasn’t a problem.

Besides, between innings there’s a mandatory 2 minutes 5 seconds for radio and TV commercials. It goes to 2:25 if the game is televised nationally, and 2:55 in the playoffs.

Artie: Cripes, I just thought of something. If the Cubs make the playoffs, they’ll want funnyman Jim Belushi to spend some time in the broadcast booth. I feel ill.

Frank: Now we come to Rule 8.04. “When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball.” It used to be 20 seconds, but was changed in 2007. Of course when there are men on base, anything goes. In a couple of the games when Houston was here, I was counting “thousand one, thousand two...” and some pitchers took more than 30 seconds when guys were on base. And when there’s a foul ball, even with the bases empty, everyone slows down. So in the box and pitchers have a good pace. But I didn’t see much evidence of that. During one of the Houston games Brandon Backe was pitching and Mike Cameron was up, and there were guys on base. Cameron is out of the box, Backe is screwing around on the mound...

Artie: Text messaging, scoping-out the busty blonde sitting ringside...

Frank: And if either one had stepped up to where he should be, the ump could have signaled to the other guy, “Let’s go or I’ll call a ball,” or “I’ll let him pitch right away.” But none of that happened.

Artie: And multiply that by the number of at-bats in a game, and in each at-bat the number of pitches.

Frank: Which brings us to Rule 2.00, which defines the terms of the game. Part of it states: “The strike zone is that area above home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the bottom of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the knee cap.”

Artie: Come again?

Frank: When we were kids it was shoulders-to-knees, and then they made it armpits and top of knees. But these days I don’t think any umpire ever calls a strike above, maybe, the belly button. They’ve talked for years about getting to a “true” strike zone and added this QuesTec thing as a monitor, but it never seems to stick.

Hey, call strikes at the letters and guys will swing the bat more, the ball will be in play and things will speed up.
Did Einstein have anything to ed strike zone could conceivably produce the statistical paradox that a whiffwizard like Mike Cameron tallies more Ks than ABs?

Frank: I know your favorite thing about pitching would be to raise the mound. In 1995 Steve Palermo, the former umpire, was assigned to suggest a speedup plan, and that was one of his points.

Artie: And so what if the balance of power flips back toward the pitcher a bit? Hey, guys my age know from the low-scoring game. We live and breathe it, every day.

Frank: Scoring might not go down all that much, what with smaller ballparks these days and juiced-up balls.

Artie: “Juiced-up balls”—that’s a Google search only for the courageously cosmopolitan, ain’a?

Frank: It seems like baseball does one of these “speed it up” things every year, but during the season. Why not announce it in the winter and enforce it in spring training, so guys get used to it? Players always say, “We just want the umps to be consistent, and we can adjust.” Let’s test that claim.

Artie: But let’s not forget commerce. The shorter the game, the fewer concessions sold.

Frank: Oops, we’ve reached the thing that trumps all arguments—the bottom line. Frank Clines labored almost 20 years in the sports department at the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and covered the Brewers part-time for most of those years. Art Kumbalek thinks that Obama-Kumbalek has a nice ring to it.

Frank and Art at MJ's, photo by Kate Engbring�

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