Owners say it's time to keep clock on game F. Robinson to enforce latest speed-up effort

March 19, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Baseball owners have tried before to hold back the clock, but their previous efforts to reduce the average length of major-league games have always come up long.

Former Orioles manager Frank Robinson says this time it's going to get done, and he's scheduled to outline the industry's latest attempt to sell the game short at today's joint ownership meeting at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

It's not the most pressing matter on the agenda -- the owners will vote today on the proposed sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers to media mogul Rupert Murdoch -- but it might be the issue that has the most direct impact on baseball fans in 1998.

Robinson has been appointed by acting commissioner Bud Selig to enforce new guidelines intended to slice 15 minutes off the average time of games in each league. The speed-up program was adopted in February and has the support of both the Major League Baseball Players Association and the umpires union, but it will take more than good intentions to make it work.

"I understand why fans are leaving in the seventh inning," Robinson said. "It's 11 o'clock and they've got to get home and go to work the next day."

The new guidelines call for pitchers to throw the ball within 12 seconds of the hitter settling into the batters box and for hitters to remain in the box unless they have a good reason to step out. The umpires will have the option of calling a ball on pitchers who linger too long on the mound and a strike on batters who do not step up to the plate in a timely manner.

The owners attempted to get a handle on the rapidly increasing length of games in 1995, appointing former umpire Steve Palermo to study the situation and submit a list of recommendations. Some of Palermo's suggestions were adopted, but they were not enforced well enough to have a significant impact on the pace of the game. The average time of a game in the American League was 3 hours, 1 minute last year, up nine minutes from 1991. The average National League game ran 2: 52, up six minutes from 1991.

Robinson said yesterday that the Commissioner's Office will monitor the length of games throughout the season to gauge compliance, and he will personnally contact managers and umpiring crews who fail to adhere to the new guidelines.

"We're talking about cutting dead time out of games," Robinson said. "We're talking about a joint effort by the players, coaches, managers and umpires. What we're trying to do is get the game to flow more smoothly."

Why Robinson? Because he is the commissioner of the Arizona Fall League, which successfully implemented speed-up rules, and because he is a Hall of Fame player and former manager with intimate knowledge of the game from several perspectives.

"I think they realize I have been through it," Robinson said. "I've seen it from all sides. I understand all sides. I understand when [the guidelines] cannot be followed, but if it happens consistently, I'll go see someone."

The Dodgers' sale is expected to be approved early today. Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner arrived in town for yesterday's league meetings, presumably to make a last-ditch attempt to persuade fellow owners to kill the deal, but no one would comment publicly on what was said when the two leagues met jointly later in the afternoon.

"We had a very lengthy and candid discussion," said interim commissioner Bud Selig, "and will resume it tomorrow."

Selig would not speculate on the outcome of the vote, but the deal already has the tacit approval of baseball's Executive Council. Turner would have to muster four other votes in the National League to veto the sale, but only two other NL teams have publicly expressed reservations about the $311 million deal that would transfer ownership of the Dodgers from the O'Malley family to Murdoch's Fox Group.

"It was just a lot of discussion, a lot of questions and a lot of clarifications," said Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris. "It'll close."

The deal also requires a majority vote of the 14 American League clubs, but that is little more than a formality.

"I'm keeping an open mind," said Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who attended the meetings with club counsel Russell Smouse. "It was a very businesslike, intelligent discussion. There were plenty of pros and some cons. It's a business decision, and I think the right one will be make tomorrow."

The pros are obvious. Murdoch is a major rights-holder who recently signed a $575 million national television deal with Major League Baseball. He has very deep pockets and figures to make the popular Dodgers an even bigger draw in one of the nation's biggest media markets.

But rival NL West clubs fear that his tremendous wealth will destroy any balance of power in the division, and his international media presense will allow him to exploit the game overseas without cutting in his fellow owners. The San Diego Padres have indicated that they might vote against the sale and the San Francisco Giants also have voiced concern.

The owners made only one official announcement yesterday, approving Florida Marlins president Don Smiley as future CEO of the club, pending approval of the ownership group he is putting together to buy the club from Wayne Huizenga.


Steps that Major League Baseball will take to speed games:

Pitchers must throw the ball within 12 seconds after a hitter settles into the batter's box with no one on base.

Umpires should not automatically grant permission for a batter to leave the batter's box.

When given permission to leave the batter's box, batters may not step more than three feet from the box.

Hitters are to give bat boys second bats to have ready in case of a broken bat.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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