Saturday, August 15, 2015


               Thanks to baseball’s Extra Innings TV package, which brings any game televised anywhere into my home at what I consider a reasonable price (about $200 a season), I watch a lot of baseball these days. This is to say I also hear a lot of complaining.
               The sources of the gripes are the TV broadcasters, and their subjects are the umpires, particularly the ones calling balls and strikes on any given day. It’s a regular whineathon, usually starting with the first batter and not ending until the last. Take away the bitching and those guys would be virtually mute. Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be too bad.

               Ordinarily, I dismiss complaints about the officiating in any sport as sour grapes. The idea that the umps, refs, etc., are out to get the teams we root for is embedded in the American psyche, especially these days when distrust of authority runs high, but the mere fact that just about everyone subscribes to it is evidence that it can’t be true. I mean, if everybody is pissed off, somebody must be doing something right.

               When it comes to the calling of baseball’s balls and strikes, though, it seems to me that the beefers have a point, even though it’s not the one they usually make. The game’s strike zone these days appears to be unusually elastic in ways that favor the pitchers over the hitters no matter what uniforms they wear.  I blame this largely for the steep decline in offense that has been the game’s main feature of the past several seasons.

The stats are clear. With the current season about two-thirds over, per-team runs a game average 4.14, the game-wide batting average is .253 and teams are striking out at a rate of 7.59 a contest. Ten years ago (2005) those figures were 4.59, .264 and 6.30, respectively. Fifteen years ago (2000) they were 5.14, .270 and 6.45.  That the bottom-line calculation of runs per game shows an almost 20% drop in this still-newish century amounts to a seismic shift in the venerable National Pastime.

A number of changes in the game help account for the trend. Pitchers today are bigger, throw harder and are technically more proficient than before. Equally as important (and usually overlooked) is the fact that there are more of them. Twenty years or so ago most teams carried nine or 10 pitchers on their 25-man rosters; today it’s 12 or 13.

Time was that starting pitchers routinely went seven innings and complete games weren’t rare. This meant that batters often would face the same pitchers three or four times a game and could put together good lines on their “stuff.” Now, teams now use four or five different pitchers even in low scoring games, and, sometimes, two or more in an inning, even when it seems they don’t have to. The other day one manager, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Clint Hurdle, changed pitchers in the ninth inning of a game his team led 5-1, with one out and nobody on base. Jeez.

Radical defensive shifts that put three or four infielders on the same side of the diamond also once were rare. Now that every batted ball goes into computers programmed to identify hitter tendencies they’re commonplace, and most hitters thus confronted are too bullheaded or self-satisfied to combat them.

Indeed, hitter bullheadedness contributes mightily to pitcher effectiveness; as Chicago White Sox broadcaster “Hawk” Harrelson recently noted, “most batters swing the same way [from the heels] whether the count is 2-0 or 0-2.”  The day when pumped-up batsmen like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were machine-gunning home runs is past, but their era’s mantra of “chicks dig the long ball” is very much alive. The corollary of that— chicks dig strikeouts—must be equally true, albeit unsaid.

But my me the umpiring factor is at least a big a factor in the decline as any of the above. In 1997, after a playoff game in which the Florida Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez struck out 15 Atlanta Braves, many on pitches that looked to be low or wide, home-plate umpire Eric Gregg answered the resulting questions by referring to “my” strike zone. The commissioners’ office came down hard on him for that, so we haven’t heard much such talk since, but the fact remains that each ump has his own strike zone and it’s up to the hitters to learn it daily. Hitting big-league pitching is tough enough without the mental gymnastics this requires.

There’s little argument that most umps are consistent in calling a strike zone that differs markedly from the rule-book prescription that it extend vertically from the midpoint between the shoulders and the belt to the top of the knees. The “high” strike—on pitches much above the belt—rarely is called, and the zone’s real bottom is the bottom of the knee rather than the top. That’s in keeping with the game’s “gentlemen’s agreement” that swaps the high strike for the low one; pitchers these days are taught to keep the ball “down” and hitters have come to expect that.

Each year, though, the zone seems to get lower, with just about every pitch that’s over the plate but not in the dirt getting strike treatment, and wider to the outside of both left- and right-handed hitters. That’s confirmed daily by the upright rectangle televisers superimpose on the zone during their broadcasts. Some days the outside edge of the plate seems to be the chalked edge of the opposite batter’s box, a difference of three or four inches. Pitches off the inside edge rarely get such latitude.

Why this should be so is easily apparent. Umps invariably set up by placing themselves inside and above the catchers’ heads. This gives them a straight view of the high ball and plate’s inside edge but a sidelong—and, thus, imperfect—view of the bottom-outside. In other words, they’re guessing on low and outside pitches. Often, they don’t guess very well. 

In baseball, “caveat emptor” means “batter beware.” It’ll stay that way until the game figures out how to correct it.

Saturday, August 1, 2015


               When the subject of the Baseball Hall of Fame comes up in my presence, as it often does (I’m an elector), the subject of Pete Rose is sure to follow.  Usually, it’s raised in the form of a question, stated aggressively. To wit: “When are you guys finally gonna let him in?”
              As much as I hate to quibble (OK, that’s not true), I preface my answer by taking issue with the question’s premises. Us “guys,” the active and retired members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who guard the front door of the Cooperstown, N.Y., museum (various, more permissive, veterans’ committees guard the side doors), have not kept Rose from being honored, capital “B” Baseball has, by its 1989 decision to bar him from any connection to the game and its institutions. He’s never been on a Hall of Fame ballot, so we writers never have had the opportunity to vote for him, or not. Unless he’s reinstated, we never will.

               The second fallacy is that Rose isn’t “in” the Hall; he very much is, even though no plaque bearing his likeness hangs in the gallery devoted to baseball’s heroes. His exclusion from baseball activities does not mean he’s become a nonperson to the game; his records (most notably his 4,256 career hits) remain on the books and his name and deeds are commemorated in other parts of the Hall. More than 20 bats, balls, gloves, photos and film and video clips associated with his feats are there, ample testimony to a 24-year playing career that had few equals.

               The erstwhile “Charley Hustle” is out otherwise because he “screwed the pooch”—did the unforgivable—by betting on baseball, violating any sport’s bedrock rule.  He can’t say he wasn’t warned because the rule long has been posted on the walls of every locker room in the professional game. It states: “Any player, umpire or club or league official who shall bet any sum…upon any baseball game in which [he] has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

               Pete didn’t just place a few, casual bets on ball games; he was a daily, big-money bettor who, often, conducted his wagering from the clubhouse of the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he played or managed for 22 of his 27 total years in the Bigs.  He always spoke loudly and had lots of shtick, so his habits weren’t unknown to his teammates, players and others who followed the club. They hardly could have missed his weight-room buddies, who doubled as book-maker messengers, running his bets out of the team’s quarters both at home and on the road.

               The evidence against Rose, contained in betting slips and phone records as well as interviews, was voluminous, available to enterprising journalists as well as to baseball’s hired gumshoes. Much of it is recounted in Michael Sokolove’s excellent book “Hustle; The Myth, Life and Lies of Pete Rose.” Published in 2002, it depicts the player as a degenerate gambler who besides betting substantial sums with bookies on any game involving a ball also would shovel four-figure wagers through the windows of Cincinnati-area horse and dog tracks on no more basis than a tip or a whim. River Downs, the old Cincy racetrack, enjoyed his patronage so much it gave him a private box from which to bet and his own teller, Sokolove wrote.

               Rose knew what he’d done—and that others knew, too—but for 15 years after his exclusion he regularly issued heated denials that he’d bet on baseball, coming clean on that score in 2004 only to hype an autobiography he’d written. He’s maintained the pose of never having bet on a Red’s game despite an ESPN piece in June revealing he’d done that, too, repeatedly, as a player as well as a manager, dating from 1984.

So what’s so bad about that? many still ask.  Betting the horses is legal and many otherwise upstanding citizens put an occasional bob on a football or baseball game, albeit with a member of the criminal element. So far it’s never come out that Rose bet on his team to lose.

Well, most obviously, ordinary citizens aren’t in a position to affect the outcomes of the contests on which they bet, as Pete was. Further, two-handed bettors like him also tend to be losers, and any player or manager who becomes beholden to the books becomes a likely target for manipulation.   Finally, bookies tend also to be bettors, and the knowledge that he bet on the Reds to win on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but not on Thursday, was valuable information in the subterranean world in which they operate.

Pete’s banishment dates back 26 years, and it’s interesting how little attitudes toward it have changed over that period.  Baseball has been partially responsible for that because it has permitted him to appear on the field at some of its functions, most recently last month’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati. That he gets ovations wherever he goes testifies to the enduring nature of his bad-boy appeal and brassy bearing, each little affected by his age (he’s 74 now).

Rose is a regular on sports-talk radio shows, on which he always plumps for reinstatement. “Charlie Manson gets a parole hearing every year, doesn’t he? So what about me?” is a favorite line.

Fact is, though, Rose’s case is being reheard constantly, and three of the game’s commissioners (Bart Giamatti, Fay Vincent and Bud Selig) have concluded that what he did was outside the bounds of redemption for a sport whose greatest scandal—the 1919 “Black Sox” episode—remains vivid after almost 100 years. If he has any sense, new commish Rob Manfred will line up with his predecessors on this. Otherwise, baseball’s no-gambling rule will be just so much wallpaper.