Patrick Reusse: Games drag on in era that rewards the walk

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2008 - 11:23 PM

When baseball greats discuss why games take so long, they cite a small strike zone and dugouts controlling the action.

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Should this be what the Major League Baseball logo looks like in the future? Or perhaps a batter stepping out of the box and cleaning his cleats ...

Tom Kelly was in front of his favorite television Saturday night for the start of Boston-Tampa Bay in the second game of the ALCS. He watched Rays starter Scott Kazmir pitch to the first couple of Red Sox and called out to the next room to his wife:

"Sharon, this is going to be a four-hour game."

Kelly was certain of this after seeing plate umpire Sam Holbrook arrive at Tropicana Field with a strike zone the size of a shaving kit.

"I felt bad for the umpire," Kelly said. "I think he's a pretty good umpire, but he didn't call strikes early, got trapped and couldn't get out of it."

Kelly still was watching after midnight and with the playoff game in its sixth hour.

"I don't care if you're rooting for the Rays or for the Red Sox, what happened to the Red Sox in the 11th inning ... you have to say that was awful," he said. "It had been a bad night for baseball, but that made it worse."

Kelly referred to Holbrook refusing to call strikes on good pitches by Boston reliever Mike Timlin. This led to the ejection of Boston pitching coach John Farrell and eventually to the Rays' 9-8 victory.

The time of the game was 5 hours, 27 minutes. The fact a game story made the Sunday Star Tribune delivered to my doorstep was a tremendous feat in deadline journalism.

"What bothers me is that someone didn't recognize what was going on in the second or third inning and say, 'Hey, why don't we loosen up the strike zone or we're going to be here all night?' " Kelly said. "If somebody in his crew says something early in the game, you don't play for five hours and have what happened in the bottom of the 11th."

Kelly played only briefly in the big leagues in the 1970s. He was around long enough to know that hitters were expected to swing the bat.

"You didn't want Dutch Rennert to call you out," he said. "If there was a pitch on the black, you better swing. The next one might be six inches off the plate, and Dutch would go into his routine and call you out, and a hitter would be traumatized for a month.

"There's not much swinging going on now. The way the strike zone has shrunk, there doesn't have to be."

Kelly paused and said: "You wonder the way they call strikes now what a guy like Dennis Eckersley would've done. He would get pitches a foot outside. He might've had a hard time surviving these days."

New MLB logo?

The logo for Major League Baseball has been a lefthanded hitter getting ready to take a cut. There have been suggestions after the past few postseasons that it should be changed to a hitter with an outstretched arm and hand signaling for time as he paws in the batter's box.

Or maybe it could be a drawing of a hitter refastening his batting gloves between pitches.

"The other night, I was watching a game and timed how long it took between each pitch for the hitters to loosen and refasten the Velcro on both batting gloves," pitching great Jim Kaat said. "It averaged eight to 10 seconds. I counted pitches, subtracted the ones that were put in play or ended an at-bat, and came up with 220-something pitches.

"The way I figured it, there were 35 minutes spent adjusting batting gloves."

Kaat always worked fast with the Twins, and then went to the Chicago White Sox and transformed himself into a quick-pitching machine.

"The umpires loved it," he said. "I would be walking in from the bullpen and John Schulock or another umpire would say, 'Kaat's pitching! We'll be out of here in an hour and 50 minutes.' "

Kaat was pitching for St. Louis and Paul Molitor was The Igniter for Milwaukee in the 1982 World Series. It was a wonderful tournament, with two blowouts and the remainder tension-filled contests as the Cardinals won in seven games.

The teams combined for 10 runs per game, and the average time was 2 hours, 52 minutes.

Before the World Series, the Brewers rallied to beat the California Angels in five games in the ALCS. Again, it was a tight series with plenty of runs (nine per game) and an average game time of 2 hours, 40 minutes.

"Two-40 ... really?" Molitor said. "I would've guessed the average was higher than that, with all the trips [Angels manager] Gene Mauch made to the mound."

Molitor was asked for his theory on the ever-increasing length of games that are ruining the postseason for many of us hardball hardcores.

"One big change that doesn't get a lot of mention is that the benches now are in charge of controlling the running game," he said. "The pitcher and the catcher used to take care of that -- when to throw over to first, when to step off the mound.

"Now, the catcher looks into the dugout, and the guys in the dugout wait for the third-base coach to give his signs, and then the dugout signals the catcher what they want, and then the catcher signals the pitcher if he should throw over, step off, slide step.

"So, you've gone from five seconds of communication between pitcher and catcher to 20 seconds. You do that 70, 80 times a game ... how much time does that add?"

Twenty minutes, plus the refastening the gloves time, plus the added hour because hitters don't have to swing because umpires won't call strikes.

"What you get is a product that many nights is unwatchable," Kaat said. "I've been involved in baseball all of my adult life, and I start watching these playoff games, and after two innings I'm saying, 'I can't sit through this.'

"A pitcher like Dice-K [Daisuke Matsuzaka] with Boston ... he has great stuff, and he refuses to throw the ball over until it's absolutely necessary. He drives me crazy."

Kelly also mentioned the frustration of watching Matsuzaka: "He has outstanding pitches, and he's out there dancing around the strike zone. He has to be the reason [Boston manager] Terry Francona has no hair."

Era of the walk

Molitor is in the Hall of Fame because, from the time he was a Milwaukee rookie in 1978 until he finished with the Twins in 1998, he came from the on-deck circle looking for a fastball to rifle past the pitcher's head.

"Absolutely, there's a different philosophy to hitting," he said. "The strike zone is smaller and everyone is trying to get into a hitter's count. That's made for higher pitch counts and longer games.

"A hitter's count for me was 0-0. When I was at the end of my rookie season with the Brewers, someone mentioned my on-base percentage and I said, 'What's that?' I wanted to know what I was hitting."

This is an era when the on-base percentage guys are running many front offices, including Boston's. They have been assisted in their success by cowering plate umpires, intimidated both by the whining of hitters such as David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis over every called strike, and by the implementation of the QuestTec computer camera to grade their work.

For 100 years, a double was a good at-bat, and now in this century it is drawing a nine-pitch walk.

"Ed Runge was a great umpire when I started out," Kaat said. "He once told me his philosophy was, 'It's a strike until it absolutely looks like a ball.' Today, the opposite is true. It's a ball until it absolutely looks like a strike."

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • preusse@startribune.com

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