Umpires Knock Down Strike-Count Proposal

WASHINGTON POST

Baseball went on a scavenger hunt a couple of weeks ago, bless its heart. The sport asked umpires to "hunt for strikes."

Look high. Look low. Fire up your right arm if the ball bounces five times on its way to the plate, if you want, but find those elusive strikes somewhere. Give us fewer pitches per game, please. Faster games. Lower scores. Happier fans. That was the hope.

Naturally, this caused an unholy fuss. After all, this is baseball, where it took 125 years to realize you could mow pretty designs into the outfield grass instead of just cutting it in a straight line.

The umps got so upset you would have thought somebody had set fire to their chest protectors. The size of an ump's personal strike zone is as private and sacred to him as the amount of cash an owner can hide in remote accounting corners where players can't find it.

Baseball wanted umpires to call enough strikes to lower the average number of pitches in a game to around 270. Not the current 285. Why? To address the sport's two most important problems: games that are too long and scores that are too high.

Fifteen pitches is the average number thrown in a half-inning. So, if those directives from Sandy Alderson, the executive vice president of baseball operations in the commissioner's office, to umps had been followed, it would probably have cut seven or eight minutes off the average game.

Also, if umpires "hunted for strikes," what they actually would have found would've been more "outs." Each umpire might liberalize his plate in a slightly different way, but the result would be the same. Cheerier pitchers. Grumpier hitters.

The consequent lower scores would have led to quicker games. So the net effect of 270-pitch games might have been a saving of more than 10 minutes a game.

One of the most important of all baseball's "integrity of the game" issues is the central quality of the product itself. Nothing would be more beneficial than faster games with slightly less scoring. A "pitch count" might have done the trick, in a manner that would have been nearly invisible to the average fan.

Now it looks like we may never find out if a perfectly sensible experiment could have worked.

The umps and their union screamed bloody murder and never really tried to find out if--maybe--counting pitches might have been good for the sport. And not so bad for them, either.

"On this one, there really isn't a middle ground," said union co-counsel Larry Gibson, as the umpires filed a grievance late last Saturday. "If this pitch count remains in any respect, it removes the total neutrality of umpires."

By Wednesday, baseball had backed off completely. "I would characterize this as a misinterpretation on their part, which led to the filing of the grievance in the absence of private dialogue," said Alderson.

Baseball has played ultra-tough with the umpires in recent years, and usually gotten its way--right down to canning Richie Garcia, a fine umpire, earlier this month because of expense account issues. In retaliation, the umpires went straight to the mattresses this time. You fire one of ours, we throw a grievance and an ultimatum back at you.

Maybe if baseball hadn't played it so tough on trivialities, an important experiment could have had a chance to live. But that's not how it's going to be.

"(This) was settled with us getting exactly 100 per cent of what we requested," Gibson said.

His pride is understandable. Unfortunately, it's completely misplaced. No issue of "umpire integrity" was ever involved. Under Alderson's directives, they could call any particular pitch any way they wanted. They just couldn't say "ball" all summer.

In effect, the umps have taken the position that they don't want to aggravate themselves by calling the strike zone in the way that might prove helpful to baseball. Why experiment? Instead, they want to do things the way that's most comfortable to them and doesn't entail the annoyance of changing habits.

Take a look around, fellas. Officials and refs in all other major sports deal with radical rules changes every few years. And they cope. In football, basketball and hockey, no such conceit exists.

Is it easy in a Super Bowl to decide in a split-second whether to throw a flag on a pass in the end zone? Yet no NFL official would have the gall to say, "I call pass interference my way." When the rules on holding or interference change, you change. Or else you get "graded" out of your job.

Others sports understand that when a game's aesthetics get ugly, you've got to try something different to restore its appeal. The NBA knows it's in trouble right now. So it's changing its rules. And will change them again, if need be. No matter who gets upset.

Even if it's Shaquille O'Neal. These days, he sounds just like a baseball ump. Me, change? Just for the good of the sport? No way.

"It's a stupid, idiotic rule," Shaq said this week of the NBA allowing zone defenses next season. "People don't want to see a bunch of lazy (guys) playing zone defense. People don't want to pay $50 or $60 a game to see that. . . . I wouldn't watch that on TV. I'd watch 'The Young and the Restless' before I'd watch that."

Of course, it's possible what people really don't want to see is the Lakers throwing the ball to Shaq in the low post 50 times a game so he can back down and bludgeon a man-to-man defender who's outweighed by 75 pounds.

Baseball's pitch-count experiment might or might not have been effective--just as the NBA's zone may not work well. But it deserved a fair trial. Umpires weren't being asked to call any exact number of strikes in any particular game. They were just being asked to lower their pitch count over the dozens of games they work behind the plate in an entire season.

For every Greg Maddux who helped them get a 220-pitch night, they'd get stuck with a couple of wild rookies who'd produce a 320-pitch monstrosity. But, over time, everybody--including umpires themselves--would have gotten a sense of whether an umpire's strike zone was very big, very small or within some reasonable middle range.

Counting pitches and prodding umps with tiny strike zones to broaden their horizons was an innocent experiment based on the best baseball motives: faster games and more sensible scoring. Umpires should have given it a fair chance instead of whining that Big Brother Alderson was looking over their shoulders.

However, as has happened so often in baseball's bitter labor relations, the game realizes again that, once the well is poisoned, even the best of intentions have little chance to thrive.

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