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As owners lag and games drag, time is of essence to win back fans

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The baseball labor crisis has damaged two seasons, derailed too many great performances and alienated a significant portion of the game's fans, but it is possible that all of the negative fallout will end up having a positive effect on the sport. Especially if Major League Baseball really is ready to take a long, hard look at itself.

Baseball owners assemble today in Minneapolis for a joint meeting that again will focus on the industry's unsolved labor situation, but the three-day meeting will begin with a serious examination of the way the sport is presented on the field.

The game has slowed to a snail's pace, and the owners finally are beginning to realize that there might be a connection between the sluggish pace of 1990s baseball and a troubling drop in attendance and television ratings. That cause-and-effect relationship has been obscured by the short-term effect of the labor crisis, but games were getting longer -- and the patience of fans was getting shorter -- even before players and owners began to pull the sport apart last year.

Former major-league umpire Steve Palermo was hired by the commissioner's office to study the problem, and he will present his findings and a series of recommendations tonight before a meeting of baseball's ruling Executive Council. No immediate action is expected, but Palermo seems convinced that the owners eventually will do something to address the lagging pace of major-league games.

"I don't think they are doing this just for the exercise," Palermo said recently. "I think they are intent on trying to resolve something on this. I know they are. From everything that has been told to me, they are very serious about it."

It is a serious problem, especially in the aftermath of a 7 1/2 -month players' strike that has left many fans unwilling to invest the same time and interest that the industry used to take for granted. It's too easy to switch the channel and watch Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon going head-to-head in a fast-paced NBA playoff game.

The average length of a major-league game continues to increase. It's up two minutes over 1994 and now is past three hours in the American League. That means that many prime-time telecasts are eclipsing the 11 o'clock news. That means a whole generation of young baseball fans is in bed before the ESPN game of the week is through the sixth inning.

Because there is little support for starting games earlier, Palermo's proposal aims at ending them earlier, but the emphasis is more on the pace of the game than the elapsed time from first pitch to last out. Palermo would not comment on the specifics of tonight's presentation, but baseball sources say he'll make a wide range of suggestions, from abandoning the designated hitter in the American League to raising the height of the pitcher's mound.

Palermo will say only that his proposal -- if fully implemented -- would trim up to 30 minutes off the average game time without seriously affecting television revenues or inconveniencing players.

The owners are unlikely to do anything as drastic as eliminating the designated hitter, but there are several, less dramatic changes that might pick up the pace. The Arizona Fall League experimented with speed-up rules that forced hitters to keep one foot in the batter's box at all times and encouraged managers to signal for new pitchers more quickly. The results were promising enough that Palermo likely will suggest that Major League Baseball follow suit.

He is aiming for a comprehensive approach that involves everyone on the field, but the responsibility for maintaining a lively pace would rest largely with the umpires. Baseball rules already give them the power to move the game along, but Palermo would make that a primary responsibility.

"There has to be a stage manager," Palermo said, "and in baseball that's called an umpire.

"There is a great deal of responsibility I'm going to put on the umpires -- not because I'm an umpire, but because that's a fact of life. I may fall out of favor with some people who have a high regard for me and I have a high regard for, because I'm going to add to their job."

Everyone who has slept through a 10-minute Kirk Gibson at-bat or waited for Lee Smith to stroll in from the bullpen has a suggestion. Even longtime Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully -- a baseball purist if ever there was one -- would like to see a few unnecessary minutes eliminated.

"This is just a thought," Scully said, "but when a football player goes out to kick a field goal or a point after touchdown, do they give him eight practice kicks before he makes the real one? When a basketball player goes to the line to shoot free throws, do they give him eight practice shots to find the range? But in baseball, you bring in a relief pitcher who has been warming up for who knows how long in the bullpen, and he gets eight more warm-up pitches when he gets out there."

Major League Baseball could trim three or four minutes off the average time by making pitchers come right in and pitch, but don't hold your breath. Pitching changes produce revenue. The time it takes for a pitcher to walk from the bullpen to the mound and warm up is just perfect for an extra commercial break.

Palermo wasn't planning to suggest that, anyway.

"With all due respect to Vin, who I think is one of the greatest baseball men alive, I don't think that would work," Palermo said. "The difference in baseball is, a relief pitcher needs to adjust to the mound, because it's different than the one he warmed up on in the bullpen. There have been several pitchers already out there, so it's going to have a different feel."

It would have a different feel if the owners went along with a suggestion to raise the mound from 10 inches to 12 or 13. The mound was lowered in 1969 to counter the growing perception that pitching had become too dominant and the game too uneventful. Little did anyone suspect at the time that two more expansions -- and the rise in popularity of several other major professional sports -- would dilute pitching talent to the point where a reciprocal rule change might be necessary.

Proponents of a higher mound say that it would make pitchers more aggressive, which would cut down on long counts, reduce walks and in crease effectiveness. Fewer walks and hits mean fewer at-bats and shorter games. Critics say that the umpires could get the same result by calling the high strike and making an effort not to squeeze pitchers when they are ahead in the count.

Speed-up rules worked in the fall league. Non-televised games averaged 2 hours, 26 minutes and televised games 2:46, though there is some question whether the difference would be that pronounced with major-league telecasts.

Television aggravates the problem, because the two-minute commercial break between innings often stretches to 2 1/2 or three minutes by the time everyone is ready to resume the game. Teams trade sides at least 17 times during a game, which means that more efficient management of between-inning breaks could cut nine or 10 minutes off the time of a game.

"I don't see a problem with the two-minute requirement, but it's got to be adhered to, and the evidence indicates it isn't," acting commissioner Bud Selig told the Los Angeles Times last week. "TV is clearly part of a complicated equation. We began to make progress [toward shortening games] a couple years ago, but there's definitely been slippage.

"It's a solvable problem, but we have to use common sense. The question is, are rule changes needed, or can we do it with the current guidelines?"

CUTTING TO THE CHASE

Possible proposals Steve Palermo (below) could present to ownership's Executive Council tonight for shortening games:

* Eliminate designated hitter;

* Raise mound from 10 inches to 12 or 13;

* Encourage umpires to call high strikes as defined in rule book and assure them they will be supported by the league offices;

* Make batters remain in batter's box for duration of each at-bat;

* Allow pitchers to put fingers to mouths while on mound, rather than make frequent trips off dirt;

* Instruct public address announcers to introduce first batter of next inning 1 minute, 35 seconds after previous inning ends so that batter is in box and break between innings is no more than two minutes;

* Encourage managers to call for new pitchers as soon as they leave the dugout and restrict TV breaks to two minutes or less.

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