It's time to go to great lengths to shorten games

INSIDE PITCH

May 31, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

Somewhere Carlton Fisk is kicking back in his retirement chair and having a good laugh while watching an occasional baseball game. Assuming, of course, that he's able to stay awake long enough.

It hasn't been too long since Fisk was considered a bigger threat to prolong a game than a thunderstorm. When he and current Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, himself dubbed the "Human Rain Delay," were on the field together, the post-game spread was more likely to include eggs than steaks.

For years, Fisk's seemingly endless trips from behind the plate to the pitching mound invariably led to his teams, first the Boston Red Sox, then the Chicago White Sox, playing the longest games in the major leagues. He was considered the concessionaire's best friend.

But Fisk is in the easy chair now, and really stopped being a factor a few years ago, when his playing time as a catcher was curtailed. So who's to blame now that we've discovered "Pudge" was merely a little ahead of his time?

Baseball has been concerned about the length of its games for several years, but efforts to reduce it have not worked. The average time required to play a big-league game last year was just a few minutes under three hours and, if anything, the pace has slowed this season.

When it takes almost four hours to play a regulation game, as was the case in the last two the Orioles played in Chicago over the weekend -- or 4:23 to play 11 innings, as it did last night -- desperate people start thinking about desperate measures. So far they have resisted tinkering with the game's structure, but some are wondering how long drastic steps can be avoided.

Everybody is aware of the problem, and most can offer reasons for the increased delays. Solutions, however, are quite another story.

Those suggested most often are to enforce a time limit between pitches, and an expansion of what currently passes for a strike zone. Both might help, but unless those on the field realize the urgency, faster play may need more dramatic action.

It might be surprising to see what could be accomplished with penalties as minimal as a ball or strike.

Eventually, hitters could be barred from leaving the box for any reason other than to take a sign. Timeouts could be disallowed any time after a pitcher has begun his motion.

In addition to being regulated by a clock, pitchers might not be allowed to stop play by stepping off the rubber once they've started any motion associated with their delivery. And, with runners on, they could be restricted in the number of times they throw to a base in any given at-bat.

What about limiting the number of pitching moves a manager can make in any given inning? Or game? And while we're at it, those needless trips to the mound to change pitchers could be eliminated by a phone call. Few managers would have any objection since those trips bring them nothing but grief anyhow.

Desperate? No. Drastic? Maybe. Necessary? Definitely.

And another thing -- start the games on time.

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