By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
We will Control the Horizontal . . .
Someone once asked Professor Irwin Corey if there was a scientific way to speed up the game of baseball. "Of course," replied the great comic scholar. "Make it quicker."
Clearly, Sandy Alderson, Major League Baseball's chief of operations, must've had Corey's words in mind when he sent out his infamous early-July "hunt for strikes" directives to young umpires whose home-plate pitch counts were averaging more than 270 a game. After The New York Times broke the story that umpire supervisor Larry Barnett (a 30-plus-year AL ump) had resigned over the pitch-count edict, and that the umpires had filed a grievance over it, Commissioner Bud Selig's office turned a nice about-face, announcing it would not use pitch-count averages "as measures of umpire performance." While baseball's party line held that all of this nonsense stemmed from an honest effort to enforce the rule-book-defined armpit-to-knee "vertical rectangle" strike zone rather than the shoebox-shaped, belt-buckle-ceiling'd horizontal one it's become over the past decade, the conspiracy theorist in us is inclined to believe instead that, like most things American, one should just follow the money to solve the Mystery of the Morphing Strike Zone.
"The motivation certainly seems to be to get the games to move along more quickly," says baseball historian and veteran official scorer Bill Shannon. "The game has clearly lost its pacing, and for my money, slow baseball is bad baseball."
But Shannon doesn't think that leaning on umpires to divine strikes out of balls is the answer. "The dynamics of the game are not that umpires calling non-strike strikes will speed the game up," says Shannon. "The biggest single culprit for games being so slow is batters not staying in the batter's box. The zone is relevant in that you get deep counts, and the hitters step out after every single pitch. Hitters control temponot pitchers or umpires. That's simply a myth. Still, to me, the real question isn't what is the strike zone, but who's generating these ideas about the strike zone."
Could it be, we asked (and as many have contended), the Fox Sports Nets and Infiniti Broadcastings of the world?
"Well, if I'm a TV or radio executive, I'd be extraordinarily PO'd that these games take over three hours to play," says Shannon, "especially since I'm not getting more commercial time out of the same number of innings. All I'm doing is taking up an extra 40 or so minutes of valuable airtime when I could have a post-game show that I could sell separately."
But he warns, umps even thinking about pitch-count totals is dangerous ground, because "it holds the entire game up to ridicule." Of course, if you felt you might lose a salary increase, or maybe even your job, through an unfavorable review if you didn't get with the strike-hunt program, as many umpires could still be feeling, well . . . just remember Professor Corey's quote from another famous philosopher, Al Capone: "You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word."
Don't Count on it
Now that Barry Bonds has started swatting homers again, we can prepare ourselves for another long summer of Mark McGwire comparisons, as in, "Barry Bonds is on pace to hit 69 homers this year." (Which he was, through Thursday.) But while anyone can do long division, we bring more sophisticated statistical firepower to bear on our predictive targets. Using a mathematical system so complicated you'd never understand it (if you must know, it's a "James-Stein Estimator," and it takes into account both sample size and past performance), we've determined that Bonds has a whopping 1.5 percent chance of breaking McGwire's single-season home-run record, and is most likely to finish at 63 dingers on the year. Luis Gonzalez, currently three behind Bonds in the NL homer race, projects at 0.3 percent and 60.
Yeah, he was pretty slow, but he didn't hit for power. That career summary is enough for us to endorse the idea of having the Mets retire ol' No. 7 in honor of Ed Kranepool. But don't think we're making fun of lovable Eddie. The current Mets outfielders probably won't reach his career total of 118 homerscombined. . . .
You'd think that after 50 years as the Yankee Stadium PA announcer, Bob Sheppard would have seen and/or done just about everything. Yet when veteran baseball writer-cum-Yankee executive Arthur Richman reminded him before a game last week at the House That Ruth Built, "We're old, Shep. But what haven't we done, right?" the smooth-voiced Sheppard quickly replied, "Now, Arthur, you know I've always wanted to pitch a World Series game." . . .
Look for a new stat in NBA box scores this fall: FBJs (Free Blowjobs), inspired by the relief that Pat Ewing sought for his aching joints at that Atlanta strip club. We already knew that Ewing was still good only in spurts.