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Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Published: Monday, 7/7/2008

Play ball - faster, without replays, and at Cooperstown

ONE OF the great things about being a baseball fan is the ability to see so clearly what is wrong with the game. The owners, the players, and of course, the umpires, all have blurred vision. But those of us in the stands are blessed with 20-20.

Fans know the game is too long. Fans understand that players are spoiled and paid obscene salaries, and that money rules everything. Somehow this awareness seems to evaporate when fans become baseball executives or worse, the Arbiter of All That Matters, the Commissioner.

The game is simply too slow, and the dark suits don't seem to care.

Take the hitters. Please.

There was a time when the batter who slowed the game down was the exception. Former major leaguer Mike Hargrove became known as the "human rain delay" for fidgeting after every pitch. Now everybody's a Hargrove. A hitter will watch a pitch go by, then step out of the batter's box, take a little stroll, readjust the Velcro on his batting gloves, tap the bat on his cleats, make sure his helmet is fitted properly, steal a quick look at the babes in the box seats, and only then, when he's darned good and ready, step back in for the next pitch.

I play senior baseball. I have swung and missed many times, and not once has the Velcro on my batting gloves come loose. Never has my helmet shifted position. Never have I felt the need to take a walk. Well, there was that time I should have used the restroom between innings, but that's another matter.

For some of these modern-day Hargroves, like Nomar Garciaparra, it's just nervous habit and superstition. He not only readjusts everything after every pitch, he runs his hands up and down his wrists in a jerky motion that looks like he's trying to catch a tarantula. If Hargrove was a human rain delay, Garciaparra is a 40-day flood. It makes no sense to the casual observer, but it must work for him because he's had a successful major league career.

I don't care. I say get in there and hit.

If I were the commissioner of baseball (boy, what fan hasn't said that?), I'd give up trying to shorten the game between innings. Television pays the bills and television has to sell stuff during the breaks. But I would instruct the umpires to tell the batter to forget the stalling between pitches. Give the batter five seconds after the ball is back in the pitcher's hands to prepare. If he's not ready, tell the pitcher to go ahead and throw.

Same goes for pitchers who stand out there on the mound and stare in so long you wonder if they've hypnotized themselves. Cleveland pitcher Rafael Betancourt drives me nuts. Here's his ritual before every pitch: He tugs on his cap. He lifts his arms over his head. He stares in for the sign. He pats the back of his head. He grabs his cap again. Then he stands there like a statue. Raffy, I'm on your side, but you don't want me as commissioner. Pitch the ball 10 seconds after you get it or the ump calls a ball.

I figure if you see Nomar Garciaparra batting against Rafael Bettancourt, you've got time to go get a $6 beer or drop a paycheck at the souvenir stand.

Here's what else I would do. Forget about instant replay. Major League Baseball is talking about some form of video system to take another look at close plays. The motivation comes, as it always does, from an inescapable fact: human beings (including umpires, despite some opinions to the contrary) make mistakes. The umps have blown a few calls this season, just as they do every season, and the deep thinkers at the main office are pondering video replays to help them out.

I understand why baseball wants to get it right. But why slow the game down even more? What kind of calls would get reviewed? Who would decide a review is necessary? Will a manager have the prerogative to call a halt to the proceedings?

The talk so far is that replay would only be utilized on so-called "boundary" calls. Was that ball really a home run or did it hook foul? Did that ball really clear the fence or did a fan interfere with it? But I worry that pressure will mount to expand replay to close plays at home plate, or balls and strikes.

Yes, baseball is a game built on strategy and mind games. I get that. The manager delays the game when he walks slowly to the mound to talk to a pitcher in a jam, buying time for a reliever to warm up in the bullpen. When a team is trailing in the fifth inning and a rain storm is imminent, they look for ways to stall and hopefully get a postponement before the contest is official. I accept such tactics as part of a cerebral game, and you don't have to change that to speed the game up.

Unlike the other major professional sports, baseball has no clock. A game continues until one team wins. In theory that could be forever. Unfortunately that's what many of today's major league games feel like, and I blame the hitters and the pitchers. Despite the jokes by me and others about umpires who need glasses, they get it right most of the time, and I don't want to stop a game in progress to confirm it.

OK, as long as I'm on my soapbox, and commissioner for a day, here's one more bonehead move I'd reverse faster than a Joel Zumaya fastball. I'd reinstate the annual Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Once every summer since 1940, two major league baseball teams have traveled to Cooperstown, home of baseball's Hall of Fame, to play a game at historic Doubleday Field.

That tradition ended June 16. Why? Because it's an annoyance to the players and the owners, that's why. For the two teams - this year it was the Cubs and the Padres - it's a day off forfeited. But is it really? Check the box scores at most of these HOF exhibitions over the years. The starters sit down after a few innings, replaced by minor league players eager to impress their bosses. The pitchers are usually marginal members of the staff or prospects with the team just for the day.

However, for the village of Cooperstown and the thousands of fans who squeeze into Doubleday Field, it's a huge deal, just as important as the Hall of Fame induction ceremony itself later in the summer. Baseball says it's a scheduling problem. But somehow games are scheduled in Japan, China, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, so why is an exhibition here at home at the shrine of baseball suddenly logistically insurmountable?

Another exhibition, the All-Star Game, is scheduled for a week from tomorrow at Yankee Stadium, though some day somebody could decide it too is a scheduling inconvenience. Baseball's signature song, "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," is 100 years old this summer. Will that be the next tradition to go?

I truly don't expect to get a call from Commissioner Bud Selig or his 30 team owners anointing me as his successor. I probably wouldn't take the job anyway. For one thing, I don't want the players' union on my case.

But a boy can dream, can't he?

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at:

twalton@theblade.com



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