The answer to a major change in tempo might lie in the minors

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Is it just wishful thinking or are spring training games already getting shorter?

The Orioles needed just 2 hours and 16 minutes to play a game Wednesday night. They regularly have been finishing exhibition games in well under three hours, even though it would seem that the liberal number of substitutions and pitching changes would have just the opposite effect on time of the games.

There can be only one logical explanation. Major-league umpires must have jumped the gun on the new speedup guidelines that reportedly were distributed to club officials and umpires over the last few days.

Not so, says umpire Rich Garcia, who has been in the American League for the last 18 seasons. There are logical reasons why exhibition games are played faster than regular-season games, even without the help of league offices.

"There's no TV for one thing," Garcia said recently, "and the guys [players] come out ready to work. The pitchers know they are only going to pitch a couple of innings. The hitters tend to swing the bat a little more often than during the regular season. We usually don't have any trouble with time of game during spring training."

But the extended length of regular-season games has become enough of a concern that the owners have prepared a list of guidelines aimed at reducing the average time of games. The directive calls for stricter enforcement of existing rules, including the limit on time between pitches (20 seconds), the number of warm-up pitches between innings (eight) and the rule requiring a manager to signal for a reliever as soon as he crosses the foul line on his second trip to the mound.

Baseball experimented with speedup rules during the inaugural season of the Arizona Fall League and the results were promising, but it seems unlikely that the same approach could be adopted in the major leagues without a lot of lead time.

"I spoke to some of the [fall league] umpires about it," Garcia said. "Sure, it's going to work great out there, but those are minor-league players. It's going to be tougher with a big-league player, because he has a routine that he has developed over his career. If you interrupt that, you're going to have a problem."

That doesn't mean that there is no hope for speeding up games -- if it is all that important to the owners and fans -- but Garcia thinks it will have to begin at the lower levels of the minor leagues.

"I think it's like anything else," he said. "You've got to start at the bottom and work up. If you're going to try to change 25 guys on each team, you're going to have a lot of chaos, like we did with the balk rule. I think it would be more disruptive than the balks."

Nevertheless, the owners appear certain to ask umpires to be more proactive in moving games along this year. It will be interesting to see if the fans really get home any earlier.

Time stands still

In case anyone was wondering, the Orioles' average time of games last year was 2:59, which was second only to the high-scoring Detroit Tigers and their erratic pitching staff (3:01). The average time of games for the American League was 2:53.

Who played the fastest? The Kansas City Royals, who finished in average of 2:42.

Canseco delivers first shots

Texas Rangers outfielder Jose Canseco blasted the Oakland Athletics this week for forcing him to play with back and shoulder problems last season.

"There are some people who seem to think I'm washed up and going downhill," Canseco told the Los Angeles Times, "but it's tough to be a premier player when you're not healthy -- and I wasn't last year. Now it's different. This is the best I've ever felt."

Canseco batted .244 with 26 home runs and 87 RBI last season. He was traded to the Rangers on Aug. 31 in the blockbuster deal for Ruben Sierra, Bobby Witt and Jeff Russell, but hasn't gotten over his bitterness toward the A's.

"I played hurt for them all year last year because they kept saying that 75 percent of Jose was better than nothing," he said. "You take the right side away from a [right-handed] power hitter and there is no power, but I was made to play under those conditions. I was never given the chance to rest and heal. What they call healing is a shot in the arm and the order to go out and play.

"There's just so much tension, so much pressure, so much emphasis on winning, winning, winning no matter the cost or how they use people," he said. "And if they don't win, they blame it on an individual, like they did me after the 1990 World Series."

No place like home

Orioles fans might not get a chance to see future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan on his final tour of the American League. The Texas Rangers are planning to pitch him at Arlington Stadium as much as possible, beginning with his appearance in the club's home opener on April 9.

Kevin Brown and Charlie Leibrandt will start the first two games of the season at Camden Yards. The Orioles play host to the Rangers for a four-game series in August, but even that does not guarantee a Ryan curtain call in Baltimore.

New manager Kevin Kennedy admits that there will be an attempt to use Ryan more at home. He also is planning to limit Ryan to about 27 starts in an attempt to keep him healthy. But Kennedy insists that the team's chances of winning the AL West will come before any ceremonial considerations.

"We know it's his last year and that the people in Arlington want to see him as often as they can," Kennedy said, "but the team comes first. We're going to try and win this thing. We think we can, but the only way is putting the best club out there as often as we can. We can't build a schedule around one pitcher or player."

Molitor waxes nostalgic

Designated hitter Paul Molitor looks strange in a Toronto Blue Jays uniform, so it shouldn't come as a complete surprise that he feels a little strange, too.

"It's an acclimation that's taking some time . . . that's still going on," he said. "I never had to fit into a new clubhouse before. The biggest adjustment for me is not having Robin [Yount] around. He either hit ahead of me or behind me for 15 years. Our lockers were next to each other. I'm having a hard time getting used to the idea of him not being around. It's definitely different."

Molitor has a tough act to follow. He has to replace Dave Winfield in the Blue Jays lineup, which isn't going to be easy even if he puts together a very representative Molitor year. The reception from Blue Jays fans in Florida has been surprisingly cool during the first week of the exhibition season.

Toronto turnabout

Could this be possible? Could the Blue Jays actually be entering the season with more question marks than the Orioles? The answer is a resounding yes, though Toronto still appears to have tTC the talent to win the American League East.

The Blue Jays are replacing the entire left side of their defense. Manager Cito Gaston has to choose between Eddie Zoske and veterans Alfredo Griffin and Dick Schofield at short. Ed Sprague and Darnell Coles are competing to replace Kelly Gruber at third. And promising Derek Bell is going to get his chance to play every day in left.

The club does not compare in depth and talent with the club that won the world championship last year, but Gaston insists that it still is better than the 1991 team that won the AL East.

Staying power

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser holds the distinction of being the only National League player whose tenure with the same organization dates back to the 1970s. He joined the Dodgers organization in 1979.

There are seven American League players who have been with their original teams longer: George Brett (1971); Robin Yount (1973); Lou Whitaker (1975); Alan Trammell (1976); Cal Ripken (1978); Kent Hrbek (1978); and Dave Valle (1978).

Trivia quiz

Which regular member of the Orioles starting rotation got the best run support last year?

The difference

Orioles right-hander Rick Sutcliffe was quick to point out one of the reasons why the Blue Jays were able to outdistance the Orioles in the AL East last year.

"They went out and got the best free-agent pitcher in baseball and the best DH," Sutcliffe said. "They got Jack Morris and they got Dave Winfield. We got me. We lost out there."

More self-criticism

Sutcliffe is credited with leading a youthful starting rotation through an exciting pennant race, but he looks back at 1992 with a different perspective, especially as it relates to his 16-15 performance.

"I'm not a statistic-oriented guy," he said, "but I know the one statistic that is most important -- how many games you won and how many you lost. I stunk last year. One game over .500 isn't going to win you anything."

Jennings' strange sojourn

Orioles first-base candidate Doug Jennings has had an interesting pro career. He started as one of the top hitting prospects in the California Angels organization, but was stolen by the Athletics in the 1988 Rule V draft when the Angels accidentally left him unprotected.

The oversight put Jennings in position to spend parts of four seasons with the A's and appear in the World Series in 1990, but it might have kept him from getting a chance to play in the major leagues. If he had stayed with the Angels, he might have inherited first base when Wally Joyner became a free agent in 1991.

"That might be true," he said. "I was a young player sitting on the bench, needing to develop. But in some ways, it was an advantage. I got the opportunity to be on three championship clubs and play in a World Series.

"I would never change what happened to me. Just the opportunity to be around those championship clubs and the Hall of Fame-type players I played with -- I wouldn't change that for anything."

Trivia answer

This answer might surprise you. The Elias Baseball Analyst reports that the Orioles starter who got the most run support was right-hander Ben McDonald, who ranked ninth in the AL in that department with 5.06 runs per start.

This might also come as a surprise. Despite the club's supposedly flat offense, four of the five regular starters got better-than-average run support. The league average of 4.32 runs per start was bettered by Arthur Rhodes (4.53), Bob Milacki (4.50) and Mike Mussina (4.44). The only Orioles starter to get below-average support was Rick Sutcliffe, who got 4.06 runs per start.

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