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How to Pick Up The Pace in Baseball

THE slower pace of baseball is one of its appealing qualities - up to a point. But when major-league games drag on to nearly three hours, as they often do these days, the potential for turning off fans grows. And given the fan flight since the long work stoppage, Major League Baseball must redouble its efforts to win back public support.

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Among the suggestions: requiring hitters to stay in the batter's box to avoid deliberate between-pitch routines like that of now-retired catcher Carlton Fisk, "The Human Rain Delay."

Another measure would call on umpires to recognize the true strike zone, which is larger than the one many seem to hold. This would result in fewer walks and faster-paced action, because hitters would have to be more aggressive.

Former umpire Steve Palermo has been studying the situation for Major League Baseball and is poised to present his suggestions for paring 30 minutes off the game when club owners meet in Minneapolis this week.

His recommendations include: Embolden pitchers by raising the mound from 10 to 13 inches, thereby encouraging them to throw more strikes; and have batters in the box when TV comes back from commercial breaks.

One of the simplest ways to shorten games would be to eliminate the warm-up tosses by pitchers brought in from the bullpen. They seem unnecessary, given that most relievers have done considerable throwing before getting the call.

Players on the bench in other sports don't enjoy the same luxury. They enter the game "cold," and - in the case of hockey players - on the fly. Granted, baseball puts a heavy premium on pitching, and some consideration should be given to assuring the safety of these key players. But bringing in well-limbered relievers should be the manager's responsibility. It shouldn't require extra down time from the game.

Touching other bases

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* Pop quiz: The Olympics will he held in the United States for the fourth time in 1996 when the Centennial Games come to Atlanta. Besides Los Angeles (in 1932 and 1984), what other American city has hosted the summer Games? (Answer below.)

* The days of wondering how the National Basketball Association would hold the public's attention without Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, or the briefly retired Michael Jordan will be a flickering memory when the NBA Finals open Wednesday night in Orlando, Fla. This series boasts perhaps the most delicious clash of big men since the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain days, with Hakeem Olajuwon of the defending-champion Houston Rockets taking on Shaquille O'Neal (photo, above) of the Orlando Magic. Olajuwon has been sensational in the playoffs, and has more than enough strength and quickness to counter the bullish O'Neal.

* Quiz answer: St. Louis in 1904.

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