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Baseball Is Becoming a Drag

IT would be downright subversive to impose on baseball a time clock like those that govern other sports. But though I wouldn't dare suggest such a drastic step, it is clear that something must be done to speed up the grand old game. It's beginning to drag.

Major-league contests are getting longer and longer; the action slower and slower. Ten years ago, the average game ran about 2 1/2 hours. Today's average is closer to three hours, thanks to a dismaying array of delaying tactics.

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Blame it mainly on the commerical demands of television.

Baseball has been slowing down most noticeably since 1985, when it was decreed that there be at least two minutes between half-innings to accommodate the commercials aired during televised games.

"That two minutes just slowed everybody's pace," says veteran umpire Harry Wendelstedt. "It used to be pitchers threw one, two balls to warm up and they were ready to go. Now you have to tell them to hold up."

You know how hitters step out of the batter's box after every pitch? That adds anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes to the typical game. Sometimes they do it to look down the third base line for a coach's signal on whether they should swing at the next pitch, let it go by, or make some other move. But often they are merely preening for television.

Bob Brenly, a San Francisco Giants' coach, notes that the batter knows "the cameras are on him and mom and pop are watching at home. When I was playing, most hitters never left the box. Now you see them walking 50 feet down the line, putting their bat on the ground, going through all these routines."

Pitchers do their part, too. A batter reaches first base, and sure enough a pitcher will lob throw after throw over there in hopes of keeping him from stealing second base, or getting a jump toward the base on a hit and run or run and hit play - tactics less common in baseball's earlier years.

The many comings and goings of relief pitchers, also rare in the good old days, add more minutes to games, and more commercials as well, considering the way the television cameras often linger on the clearly labeled shoes of relievers as they amble in from the bullpen.

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Umpires could help by paying more attention to the rules of the game. The rules tell us, for instance, that "the strike zone is that space over home plate which is between the batter's armpits and the top of his knees when he assumes his natural stance." But when was the last time an umpire called any pitch above the belt a strike? By shrinking the strike zone, umpires guarantee that more pitches will have to be thrown.

And suppose umpires told those preening batters to knock it off?

There are rules against delaying games. They say, among other ignored matters, that after receiving the ball back from the catcher, a pitcher must throw to the batter again within 20 seconds.

Umpires and players aren't likely to change their ways, however.

Nor are broadcasters likely to adopt umpire Wendelstedt's suggestion that games be allowed to run at their own pace without interruption for commercials, through the device of showing the ads on half a split screen, game action on the other half.

But maybe the picture is not quite as dark as it seems. Look at the bright side. Major league baseball is not cheap. It can cost a family of four from $40 to nearly $100 a game for parking, tickets, refreshments, and souvenirs. The longer the games, the more baseball they're getting for their money.

"At $10 a ticket," notes Dave Barry, a San Francisco Giants fan, "a 2 1/2-hour game costs $4 an hour. But a 3 1/2-hour game brings the cost of entertainment down to $2.85 an hour. Now I ask you: If you were parking downtown and had a choice between using a meter that gave you 15 minutes for a quarter versus a meter that gave you 60 minutes for a quarter, which would you choose?"

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