Hall of Famer Frank Robinson had an active spring. He visited all 30 major-league teams in Arizona and Florida over the span of one month, as if to make the point that you can pack a lot of activity into a short time if you set your mind to it.
That's what Robinson has set his mind to this year. In his new capacity as consultant to the commissioner on special projects -- a title that proves you can fit a lot of type on a business card if you set your mind to it -- he has been charged with the difficult task of packing more baseball action into a tighter time frame, if everyone sets his mind to it.
Call him baseball's time bandit.
He was in Arizona for the first Opening Night at Bank One Ballpark last week. He was at Camden Yards on Friday night. Spreading the good news that Major League Baseball can pare down the average time of the game by a good 15 minutes if the managers and players and umpires will just adhere to a few simple guidelines.
Pitchers: Deliver the ball within 12 seconds if there's no one on base.
Hitters: Don't leave the batter's box without a good reason and don't stray more than three feet away.
Managers: Get relief pitchers ready in a timely fashion and call for them immediately upon exiting the dugout to make a pitching change.
Umpires: Monitor the time between innings to assure that it does not exceed two minutes (2: 20 for nationally televised games). Enforce the guidelines regarding pitchers and batters.
If everyone makes a concerted effort to cut some of the "dead time," Robinson says that Major League Baseball can reduce the average time of the game.
"We're not asking for the impossible," Robinson said. "We understand that there are going to be exceptions to it. What we're trying to do is get a nine-inning game in in 2: 35 to 2: 40."
Long and short of it
Sounds reasonable enough, but major-league games have been getting steadily longer over the years, the average time of game inflated by widening commercial gaps between innings, dawdling players and managers and an overall indifference to the plight of the working fan, who once could expect to get home from a 7: 30 p.m. game just after 10.
Now, fans have to leave in the seventh inning to get home at a reasonable hour, which explains the late-inning exodus that has become the trademark of fans in Los Angeles and other high-traffic major-league sites.
Orioles fans generally stay longer, but they've seen firsthand how slow play can turn an otherwise exciting matchup into a meandering marathon. In 1996, the Orioles and New York Yankees set the major-league record (and broke their own American League record) when they stretched nine innings over four hours and 21 minutes on April 30 at Camden Yards. Last year, the same two clubs added a minute to that mark on Sept. 5 at Yankee Stadium.
Maybe that's why the commissioner's office found almost universal support for the new speed-up plan when management officials bounced it off representatives of the players association and umpires union.
"I visited every club in spring training and they all said, 'Yes, I agree this should have been done three years ago,' " Robinson said. "I didn't get any negative feedback. None whatsoever."
To reinforce baseball's commitment to make the plan work, umpiring crews are meeting with managers and player representatives at the start of each series to go over the new guidelines. Robinson conducted the meeting before Friday night's series opener between the Orioles and Detroit Tigers.
"We're not going to knock a half-hour off our games," said Orioles player representative Mike Mussina. "That's unrealistic. But I think they would like to avoid the 3 1/2 - to 4-hour game. Take the 3: 40 game down to 3: 20.
"There are times when you can save a minute here and there if guys aren't stepping out of the box and pitchers aren't walking around the mound blowing on their hands."
There are times when it is strategically important for the manager to stall for time, but Orioles manager Ray Miller said he already is trying to be more efficient when he changes pitchers.
"We're trying to keep the game moving," Miller said. "I'm doing it. I try to signal to the bullpen right when I come out of the dugout. I agree there are little things we can do. The batters can stay in the box. The pitchers have to throw the ball in a certain amount of time. They're basically saying that they're going to monitor it and warn anybody who is taking too long. It's a concerted effort."
Quick and to the point
Already, there have been some encouraging signs, especially at Camden Yards, where only one game during the six-game, season-opening homestand lasted more than three hours (3: 01). The average time of game for the six games was an acceptable 2: 44, though that was held down by the Scott Erickson's 2: 07 master timepiece on Wednesday -- a game that Robinson was quick to classify as an aberration.
Erickson said afterward that he wasn't even aware yet that there were new guidelines in place to speed up the action.