The answer to a major change in tempo might lie in the minors

BASEBALL

March 14, 1993|By PETER SCHMUCK

Is it just wishful thinking or are spring training games already getting shorter?

The Orioles needed just 2 hours and 16 minutes to play a game Wednesday night. They regularly have been finishing exhibition games in well under three hours, even though it would seem that the liberal number of substitutions and pitching changes would have just the opposite effect on time of the games.

There can be only one logical explanation. Major-league umpires must have jumped the gun on the new speedup guidelines that reportedly were distributed to club officials and umpires over the last few days.

Not so, says umpire Rich Garcia, who has been in the American League for the last 18 seasons. There are logical reasons why exhibition games are played faster than regular-season games, even without the help of league offices.

"There's no TV for one thing," Garcia said recently, "and the guys [players] come out ready to work. The pitchers know they are only going to pitch a couple of innings. The hitters tend to swing the bat a little more often than during the regular season. We usually don't have any trouble with time of game during spring training."

But the extended length of regular-season games has become enough of a concern that the owners have prepared a list of guidelines aimed at reducing the average time of games. The directive calls for stricter enforcement of existing rules, including the limit on time between pitches (20 seconds), the number of warm-up pitches between innings (eight) and the rule requiring a manager to signal for a reliever as soon as he crosses the foul line on his second trip to the mound.

Baseball experimented with speedup rules during the inaugural season of the Arizona Fall League and the results were promising, but it seems unlikely that the same approach could be adopted in the major leagues without a lot of lead time.

"I spoke to some of the [fall league] umpires about it," Garcia said. "Sure, it's going to work great out there, but those are minor-league players. It's going to be tougher with a big-league player, because he has a routine that he has developed over his career. If you interrupt that, you're going to have a problem."

That doesn't mean that there is no hope for speeding up games -- if it is all that important to the owners and fans -- but Garcia thinks it will have to begin at the lower levels of the minor leagues.

"I think it's like anything else," he said. "You've got to start at the bottom and work up. If you're going to try to change 25 guys on each team, you're going to have a lot of chaos, like we did with the balk rule. I think it would be more disruptive than the balks."

Nevertheless, the owners appear certain to ask umpires to be more proactive in moving games along this year. It will be interesting to see if the fans really get home any earlier.

Time stands still

In case anyone was wondering, the Orioles' average time of games last year was 2:59, which was second only to the high-scoring Detroit Tigers and their erratic pitching staff (3:01). The average time of games for the American League was 2:53.

Who played the fastest? The Kansas City Royals, who finished in average of 2:42.

Canseco delivers first shots

Texas Rangers outfielder Jose Canseco blasted the Oakland Athletics this week for forcing him to play with back and shoulder problems last season.

"There are some people who seem to think I'm washed up and going downhill," Canseco told the Los Angeles Times, "but it's tough to be a premier player when you're not healthy -- and I wasn't last year. Now it's different. This is the best I've ever felt."

Canseco batted .244 with 26 home runs and 87 RBI last season. He was traded to the Rangers on Aug. 31 in the blockbuster deal for Ruben Sierra, Bobby Witt and Jeff Russell, but hasn't gotten over his bitterness toward the A's.

"I played hurt for them all year last year because they kept saying that 75 percent of Jose was better than nothing," he said. "You take the right side away from a [right-handed] power hitter and there is no power, but I was made to play under those conditions. I was never given the chance to rest and heal. What they call healing is a shot in the arm and the order to go out and play.

"There's just so much tension, so much pressure, so much emphasis on winning, winning, winning no matter the cost or how they use people," he said. "And if they don't win, they blame it on an individual, like they did me after the 1990 World Series."

No place like home

Orioles fans might not get a chance to see future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan on his final tour of the American League. The Texas Rangers are planning to pitch him at Arlington Stadium as much as possible, beginning with his appearance in the club's home opener on April 9.

Kevin Brown and Charlie Leibrandt will start the first two games of the season at Camden Yards. The Orioles play host to the Rangers for a four-game series in August, but even that does not guarantee a Ryan curtain call in Baltimore.

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