- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2001

Back when I first discovered baseball, sometime around the middle of the last century, everybody who played or loved the game knew what the vertical perimeters of the strike zone were armpits on the high end, knees on the low and all body parts in between.

That didn't mean every major league hitter honored it; Lawrence Peter Berra of the Bronx, N.Y., was almost as famous for mashing errant pitches as he was for mangling the language. But at least we knew what the zone was supposed to be.

In recent years, however, the strike zone seems to have shrunk like Slick Willie's chances of becoming a revered ex-president. We've all seen on TV how anything above the waist is called a ball enough to make old-timers like Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander spin faster than a Roger Clemens heater.

This spring Major League Baseball is attempting admirably to restore the traditional strike zone. Once more, pitches at the letters will be strikes, at least theoretically. And fewer balls mean fewer walks and faster games, also theoretically. Who knows some nights horsehide happenings might even be concluded before Jay Leno arrives.

Whether the new zone survives into the regular season remains to be seen, but it has a chance. MLB executive VP Sandy Anderson conducted seminars for the umps over the winter, and now the men in boo themselves are visiting camps. Most baseball experts agree that the new standard is a dandy idea, especially those wearing toeplates. It should be noted, though, that the start of serious combat is still more than a month away.

"Everybody thinks the umpires are going to do it in spring training and then bag it," says Larry Bowa, who has the misfortunate of managing the Philadelphia Phillies. "But baseball has put a lot of money into this, and I think they're serious. The only thing I'm worried about is that the umpires will be so concerned about calling a pitch up that they'll miss the one down."

It's debatable how much the pitchers will gain by having higher pitches called strikes, because if you're not a Clemens, Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez, anything above the waist stands a chance of traveling "900 yards," as Bowa puts it.

This business of speeding up games is open to question, too. Says Bowa, one of the game's all-time umpire baiters: "If everybody argues [over calls], it might slow things down." (For the grisly record, nine-inning games required an average of 3:00 in the American League and 2:55 in the National to complete last season and often seemed much longer than that.)

Personally, I think anything that helps the pitchers is a positive step. Good baseball is based on balance, and the combination of smaller ballparks, livelier baseballs and a strike zone the approximate size of Bill Veeck's midget has created terrible inequity. It's hard to feel sorry for any ballplayers, given the average major league salary, but right now most pitchers are living in mortal danger.

If your child aspires to professional baseball, umpiring isn't a bad gig. OK, so you have a lot of people arguing in your face, so what? The pay is pretty good, you get vacation time during the season and it's permissible now to yowl at the jocks as much as they yowl at you. You seldom see umps turning their back on a hassle anymore. Instead, they give as good (or bad?) as they get, which hasn't done much to increase respect.

It's fortunate that Earl Weaver and umpire Ron Luciano, who were the best of enemies for a decade or so, aren't around today, because Ron might dropkick little Earl from Camden Yards clear over to the Inner Harbor.

I like the way old Bill Klem, who spent 35 years with mask and indicator, used to do it. When a firebrand like John McGraw or Leo Durocher commenced screeching, Klem simply drew a line in the dirt and walked away. If the other guy crossed that line, the clubhouse man could go stand by his locker with a towel and bar of soap.

It has been proven over baseball's 130 seasons, that you have to have decent umpires, and the folks who are in charge of what used to be called our national pastime deserve credit for trying to restore the strike zone and some sense of equity to the game. Now all everybody has to do is work together to make it happen.

Chicago Cubs catcher Joe Girardi puts it this way: "Players have to have patience with umpires, and umpires have to have patience with players."

Oh, is that all?

Let's be hopeful, but let's not hold our breath.


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