By Steve Chapman
One of baseball's venerable axioms is that no one goes to a game to watch the umpires. Maybe not, but I for one will be happy to go to cheer the umpires.
At least I will do so for any composed of the same stuff as Joe West, who the other day brought down a stern judgment about the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox: "It's pathetic and embarrassing. They take too long to play."
West does not merely say the right things. On Tuesday night, when the longtime—and I do mean long time—rivals met, his plate umpire, Angel Hernandez, did something that is seen about as often on a baseball field as a troupe of ballerinas. Batters asked for time out, and he declined to give it to them. "Shut up and hit" was the implicit message.
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It was not enough to moderate the exhausting duration of the game. That night, the two teams managed to pack nine innings into three hours and 48 minutes, during which time you could have flown from Las Vegas to Chicago.
There are many good reasons that games have gotten longer, from an average of two hours and 23 minutes in 1951 to 2:52 last season. (New York and Boston, the slowest teams, typically exceeded three hours). Pitching changes are more common, batters are more intent on working long counts, and base runners may draw more pickoff throws.
But then there are the bad reasons, which fall into two categories: batters and pitchers. The guy on the mound can extend the contest to punishing lengths by stepping off the rubber, walking around the mound, fiddling with the rosin bag, and so on, and many pitchers make full and frequent use of the opportunity.
The rules stipulate that when there are no men on base, the pitcher has 12 seconds to transport the ball in the direction of the catcher. But last year, the average interval was 27 seconds. Umpires punished laggards 15 or 20 times by calling a ball on a pitch that wasn't thrown, but that means penalties were assessed once in every 121 games.
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Without more vigorous enforcement, we should not expect things to get much better. Major League Baseball Vice President Bob Watson told the Associated Press, "My dream for 2010 is to have a pace of 25 seconds per pitch." Dream big, Bob!
A pitcher, however, may not carry out his duties until his offensive counterpart is ready to fulfill his. The other day I watched a clip of Game 7 of the 1965 World Series, when Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers shut out Minnesota, and I was less amazed by his pitching prowess than by a strange, inexplicable habit exhibited by the hitters: remaining in the batter's box between deliveries.
Youngsters who have grown up in the intervening years may be surprised to learn that the official rulebook does not strictly require the hitter to remove himself from the vicinity of home plate after each offering. There is no penalty for staying put.
But there might as well be. Today, every self-respecting batsman finds it impossible to perform his function without repeatedly adjusting his helmet, pulling on his gloves, hitching his pants, tugging his shirt, tapping his cleats, checking his grip, and silently reciting the Gettysburg Address.
In the 1980s, the Cleveland Indians' Mike Hargrove engaged in dilatory antics that earned him the nickname The Human Rain Delay. Nomar Garciaparra, who played for the Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers and Athletics, conducted bizarre clinics in the suspension of time every time he strode to the plate.
Players like them used to stand out, but not so much anymore. From the approach of many hitters, you would think they were getting paid by the second. That, or there's a bill collector outside the locker room who they hope will tire of waiting and leave.
More likely it will be weary fans who will run out of patience and flee in hope of finding some sport that is more respectful of the demands on their time. Like the Iditarod.
But Major League Baseball has given the umpires the authority to eliminate the pointless prolongation of games. Some of them, at least, are resolved to act.
Go for it, men in blue! And make it snappy.
Photo credit: The Sporting News