Resemblance to baseball coincidental

May 28, 2000|By John Eisenberg

They aren't playing baseball in the major leagues these days. Not the baseball your father grew up watching.

"It's almost more like beer-league, slow-pitch softball now," Orioles pitching coach Sammy Ellis said. "And you know what? I think the fans love it."

Maybe. But still. Come on.

"I think this particular situation has gotten a little out of hand," former Oriole Jim Palmer said.

Too many home runs. Too much power. Not enough of the nuances and strategy that make the game so grand.

Not enough baseball, basically.

"It wouldn't hurt," Palmer said, "to level the playing field [between pitchers and hitters] just a little bit."

But how? That's Question A in baseball's corridors as the home run totals mount and 11-9 games become routine. What can be done to give the pitchers a better chance?

Let's start with what can't be done. Rule out the impossible.

Expanding the dimensions of the new, retro ballarks, for instance. That isn't going to happen.

"There's a cozy look to the game, and it's very, very popular," Palmer said.

Nor are the players going to get smaller and weaker. Sorry, can't make that happen.

"And I'm convinced that the strength and size of today's players is the biggest reason for all the home runs," Ellis said.

"When I pitched [in the major leagues from 1962 to 1969], there were no weight rooms or conditioning coordinators. Either you were strong or you weren't. Now, every team has a weight program, and they take the smaller guys and make them strong, and take the stronger guys and make them huge."

So. OK. The parks are little, the hitters are big and you can't undo years of expansion, which has dumped a load of Triple-A pitchers into the major leagues. What's left to be done?

"Start by raising the mound," Palmer said. "If you want to effect the [desired] change without hurting the game, do that."

It's been discussed. Pitchers mounds peaked at 15 inches until 1969, when baseball's lords, fearful that pitching was too dominant, lowered the height to 10 inches. Hitting immediately improved.

But that that was before the designated hitter was instituted, and before all the little parks and big guys cropped up.

In today's conditions, raising the mound back to 15 inches makes sense and probably would help pitchers more than any other change.

"There's no question," Ellis said. "The downhill plane would be easier to attain on a consistent basis, and the breaking pitches and sinking fastballs would have better depth [if they raised the mound]. That's just sheer physics. If you add a five-inch angle on a sinker, you're going to have a better chance to get the hitter out.

"Yet with all these guys [at bat] so strong, they're still going to hit any mistakes right out of the park. There'd still be a lot of offense."

Just not quite as much, Like, not every inning.

"There would be fewer arm injuries, too," Palmer said. "Nothing is harder on an arm than throwing off a flat mound. That'd be significant in the era of big, guaranteed contracts."

If you raise the mound, do you need to do anything else?

"Call the strike zone as it should be," Ellis said. "Be consistent. A strike is a strike."

Nice thought. Isn't going to happen.

"I know that," Ellis said, "which is why I tell anyone who will listen about my idea. You need to electronically outline the plate with a lighting system. Give the home plate umpire a sensor. If the ball touches the outline, the sensor buzzes. It's a strike. Ump raises his hand. If there's no buzzer, it's a ball."

In other words, copy the tennis model and call pitches electronically?

"I've seen it done," Ellis said. "Spring training in Mesa, Ariz., with the Cubs. A guy up in a booth raised and lowered the [electronic outline] depending on how tall the batter was. The strike zone was consistent and perfect. You could do it in every major-league park for just a few thousand dollars. And you'd still need the umpire there to run the game, so you wouldn't have to fire any of them, even though there's a lot of them you'd like to [fire]."

Electronic balls and strikes? Hey, it's a new century.

"And here's another idea, very simple, wouldn't affect the flow of the game at all," Palmer said. "Just make gloves bigger. Not by a lot. Just enough to make it so guys [in the field] would catch more balls. That would make a big difference."

Bigger gloves, electronic umpires, higher mounds. Especially higher mounds. That would put some baseball back in the game

And the ball itself?

"I do think it's juiced this year," Ellis said. "I played with a lot of strong guys, and they never hit balls as far as they're going this year. Something's up."

Home runs, that's what's up. Too far up.

The onus is on baseball's lords to do something about it.

Like, now.

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