The Stories Of 2001


Major League Baseball executive vice president Sandy Alderson is a bespectacled guy who wears loafers and plaid shirts and looks more like a laid-back college type than the engineer of an aggressive drive to change the way baseball is played in the 21st century.

Obviously, appearances can be deceiving.

Commissioner Bud Selig may be the point man for baseball ownership, but Alderson is the nuts-and-bolts guy who is responsible for many of the noticeable differences in the sport this season.

Baseball is a business that has always been slow to make major changes. It took about 30 years for Selig's dream of interleague play to become a reality. Ownership also took its time about realignment and expansion before a burst of activity dramatically altered the baseball landscape in the 1990s.

Now, the sport is gearing up for a 2001 season that will feature important changes in the way the game is played and how it is presented to the fans. Selig will be the man in the spotlight. Alderson will be the guy pulling the strings. Let us count the ways that this season will be different from the last:

Anyone for a highball?

The shift to a higher strike zone didn't really happen overnight. Alderson has been pushing for years for a tighter interpretation of the rulebook strike zone, but his first attempt got bogged down in the power struggle between Major League Baseball and the Major League Umpires Association.

Former union chief Richie Phillips filed a grievance to stop implementation of a higher strike zone, the first in a series of stupid labor tricks that turned public opinion against the umpires and led to the decertification of the old union.

The new union has embraced the new strike zone, which calls for the upper limit to be raised from just above the belt to a point about two baseballs above the waist. It still isn't exactly the rulebook zone, but - with umpires also instructed to call the inside and outside pitches tighter - it is back to being a vertical rectangle.

Umpires enforced it without major incident during the exhibition season. Now, we're going to find out whether Alderson's desire for conformity and consistency will translate into a more watchable game during the regular season.

Changes in latitude

If the shift to a better-defined strike zone was intended to take some discretion away from the umpires, another directive from the central office gives them more control over the behavior of the players.

Umpires have been instructed to eject pitchers immediately if they believe that an inside pitch was intended to hit or knock down a batter.

It isn't a rule change. Umpires already have the authority to eject players for flagrantly aggressive behavior, but baseball has long handled the purpose pitch with first a warning to both benches and then ejections for further violations. Now, umpires are being advised to handle those situations more aggressively.

Call it the Roger Clemens rule, because it came - coincidentally or not - in the wake of two unseemly incidents involving Clemens and New York Mets slugger Mike Piazza last season.

New York Yankees manager Joe Torre - among others - has been critical of the directive, because he believes it will discourage pitchers from throwing inside and increase the competitive edge for hitters.

A time for imbalance

Major League Baseball has been tinkering with the regular-season schedule since the last labor war alienated millions of fans and focused attention on the shortcomings of the expansion era.

More teams meant fewer games between geographical rivals. The advent of interleague play in the mid-1990s further compressed the in-league schedule. Baseball already had added intrigue to the stretch drive with the addition of a wild-card playoff berth in each league, but something needed to be done to sustain fan interest from wire to wire.

The answer was fairly obvious. The reinstitution of an unbalanced schedule this season greatly increases the number of games between division rivals and spices up the month of April with some big divisional series. The Orioles, for instance, play the rival Boston Red Sox six times in the first nine games of the season.

What an improvement over the old schedule, which allowed some divisional rivals to go months without playing each other. The first visit by the defending world-champion Yankees to Camden Yards last year was during the final week of July.

In the first 10 days of the regular season, there are seven series between teams that finished first and second in their divisions last year. What a great way to begin the season.

Storm clouds

OK, so baseball's labor dispute doesn't directly affect the way the game will be played this season, but it may have an impact on the attitude of the fans - especially if both sides start sniping at each other as they near the expiration of the current labor agreement Oct. 31.

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