- - Thursday, June 27, 2019


WALDORF, Md. — Stan Cliburn is a baseball lifer — 47 years in the game, and he thought he’d seen it all. He’s played at every level and managed at most as well. But this summer, at the age of 62, the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs manager is seeing something new.

Cliburn has a front-row seat to perhaps the future of the Major League Baseball, which this season is using the Atlantic League’s minor league games as a testing ground for ideas to speed up pace of play and create more action in the game.

So far, Cliburn says, he likes what he sees.

“Nothing but positive,” says Cliburn when asked about his reaction to some of the experimental rules.

That’s notable because few are more affected by the changes than the manager.

For example, when Cliburn brings in a left-handed reliever for a lefty matchup at the plate early in an inning, he better be prepared to leave that pitcher in to face the two or more right-handed hitters likely to follow. Under this new pace-of-play rule, any relief pitcher brought in has to face a minimum of three batters, unless it is the end of an inning.

“If I bring in a lefty to face a lefty with two outs and he gets that lefty out, he doesn’t have to go out the next inning,” Cliburn said. “But if he doesn’t get him out, he has to at least end the inning or face three hitters before I can take him out. It changes the whole strategy for the manager, especially in the middle innings when you have one or fewer outs. It kind of eliminates the lefty on lefty matchups.

“I think it’s good for minor league baseball.”

That’s a pretty open mind for a baseball lifer, especially one who has made countless pitching changes over decades without any restrictions other than his own strategies.

“You had matchups before,” pitcher Craig Stem said. “Now the lineups in the league are really stacked because they know a lefty is going to have to face two righties, or the other way around. You used to have two or three pitching changes every inning.”

That’s not all. If his pitcher is struggling out there on the mound, the manager can’t come out to talk. Neither can his pitching coach or an infield teammate. That pitcher is out there by himself to sink or swim.

It’s a change that makes for some interesting moments.

“I’ve seen some games get out of hand because the pitcher is out there on an island by himself,” said Blue Crabs general manager Courtney Knichel. “I am elated about the changes. It helps put the Atlantic League on the national map.”

The Atlantic League itself was a grand experiment, started in 1998 as an independent league, not affiliated with any major league team, with a Class Triple-A talent level, seen as a place where major leaguers looking to revive or extend their career could do so, along with prospects who fell out of favor with their respective organizations. Rickey Henderson has played in the Atlantic League, along with Carlos Baerga and others of note. Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill was in the Atlantic League in 2015. Former major league ace Mat Latos is the closer for the Blue Crabs.

It has been a grand success, currently with eight teams, and, as an independent operation, has the flexibility to serve as a laboratory for MLB. League president Rick White and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred worked together in baseball in the early 1990s.

Changes for a game built on tradition can be difficult, but the Atlantic League fosters a mindset of flexibility, standing on its own, beholden to no one.

“There has been vast acceptance,” said White, who confirmed that the changes this season have shaved 3 minutes off average game times, which are down to two hours and 49 minutes.

Veteran Blue Crabs slugger Cory Vaughn grew up in the game as the son of former major leaguer Greg Vaughn. He, more than most, understands baseball tradition.

Vaughn said he is open to change. “I feel like you have to adapt with the times here and there,” he said. I don’t know if big changes will ever happen in the big leagues. I like the pitching change rules, it speeds up the tempo. If the changes speed up the pace of play, I’m all for it.”

The biggest change — the “Trackman Strike Zone,” an electronic umpire that will call balls and strikes — is still to come. The large black box sits there in the upper deck at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf waiting to be put into action.

The system still has some bugs to be worked out, but officials are determined to see the device come online in all Atlantic League ballparks — maybe before the end of the season.

There are other changes — no infield shifts, increased size of bases — but ground zero for pace of play always starts with the pitcher. In addition to the electronic umpire, the league is considering moving the pitching rubber back two feet.

“That may be a little strange,” Cliburn said.

These are strange times in baseball, as the game is ready to turn itself inside out to keep fans in the seats just long enough.

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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