There was a time -- not so long ago -- when baseball was largely a game of King of the Hill. Whoever stood tallest on the mound was all but certain to have the best team, and it was a lot easier to stand taller then, because the mound was 5 inches higher than it is today.
Now, with offensive production booming and tentative pitchers slowing the game to a crawl, Major League Baseball is close to adopting a rule change that would boost the mound closer to where it was when pitching was pre-eminent.
"I think there would be an impact," said Orioles manager Phil Regan, who started his pitching career on a 15-inch mound and finished it soon after the mound was lowered to accommodate a more exciting offensive game. "When they lowered it, it hurt a lot of pitchers. I remember Juan Marichal, with his high leg kick, said it made a tremendous difference. I felt it in my slider. It got flatter.
"To me, it was a major change. If they change it back, it will be a major change the other way."
It won't be as drastic. The proposal made last month by former umpire Steve Palermo and endorsed by major-league owners June 8 calls for the mound to be raised to a height of about 12 1/2 inches -- halfway between the current 10 inches and the pre-1969 level.
Still, proponents of a higher mound believe it would level a playing field that has been tilted toward the hitters since two major-league expansions and the proliferation of other professional sports conspired to dilute the pitching talent pool. They also hope that giving pitchers a greater edge would speed up games, because better pitching means fewer hits, fewer walks and fewer at-bats.
In addition, pitchers presumably would become more aggressive and throw more strikes, which would make the game more exciting for the fans.
Hall of Famer Jim Palmer says so. He started his career pitching from the 15-inch mound and was unhappy when the change was made for the 1969 season, though it didn't keep him from continuing to build up his reputation as one of the most dominant pitchers in the history of the game.
"Steve Palermo came to the logical conclusion that if you have more leverage, you'll be more aggressive," Palmer said. "The more you're on top of a hitter, the more confident you feel, but it's also easier to maintain good mechanics on a high mound. On a flat mound, you have to rush your arm motion to get over the top before your front foot hits the ground."
The more dramatic downward angle also would work against the pTC hitters, because it would cause a subtle increase in velocity. Scouts have noticed that the velocity gap between the radar readings on the "fast" radar gun (which measures the speed of the ball out of the pitcher's hand) and the "slow" gun (which measures the speed of the ball crossing the plate) diminishes the higher the ball is released, probably because the more downward trajectory reduces the decelerating force that gravity would place on an object moving horizontally.
Still, the change was proposed largely because of the psychological impact that it is expected to have on pitchers, many of whom seem hesitant to throw the ball in the strike zone before it's absolutely necessary. The premier pitchers probably won't alter their approach, but if the marginal pitchers gain confidence around the strike zone, it is certain to have an effect on the pace of the game.
"I can see where that might happen," said Oakland Athletics relief ace Dennis Eckersley, who has had little trouble dominating hitters from a flat mound. "They lowered it in the first place because pitchers were taking over the game and they wanted more offense."
Though most pitchers favor the proposed change, A's veteran Dave Stewart is against it. He said pitchers are being unfairly blamed for the apparent decline in the quality of play and the excitement of the game.
"Pitchers are getting tired of having this blamed on them," Stewart said. "I sat in the dugout the other night and saw six pitches that should have been called strike three -- on both sides, not just for our pitcher -- but the umpire won't put his arm up with two strikes. You can't improve the quality of the pitching unless you improve the quality of the umpiring. If the strike zone was consistent, this wouldn't even be an issue."
Nobody has stood taller on the mound than Randy Johnson, 6 feet 10, so the thought of the Seattle Mariners' ace getting 2 1/2 inches taller has to be frightening for opposing hitters, but he also wonders whether raising the mound is necessary.
"I'm in favor of anything to speed up the game," Johnson said, "but I don't see how raising the mound a couple of inches is going to make pitchers more aggressive if you're not aggressive to begin with. All that needs to be done is open the strike zone up to where it is supposed to be in the official rule book. I think that would really speed the game up, because it would make the hitters swing the bat."
The strike zone has been an issue for the past two years. It came under scrutiny last season when offensive production skyrocketed, creating an alternative to the more popular "juiced ball" theory. Pitchers complained that they had to put the ball in the heart of the hitting zone to get a called strike. That enabled baseball's big hitters to wait around for a fat pitch or walk.
Though there is plenty of evidence that a higher mound would change the pace of the game, Orioles director of player development Syd Thrift said he isn't sure it would have a negative impact on offensive production.
"I don't want to raise or lower anything," he said. "I don't think it would make a major difference. Everybody would just be 2 inches taller."
Former major-league catcher Ray Fosse, who broadcasts games for the A's, agrees. His playing career started during the high-mound era and ended after the mound was lowered, and he said raising it won't make a significant difference.
"I don't care how high up you are, if you don't throw the ball in a good location, it's not going to matter," Fosse said. "If a pitcher has good location, you're going to see a good game."
There may be some question whether an official increase in the height of the mound will have a significant impact on the balance between pitching and offense, but it's no secret that many teams unofficially have raised their mounds to give a greater advantage to their pitching staffs.
Even the Orioles apparently were guilty of skirting the rules on the legal height of the mound during the 1970s and '80s.
Head groundskeeper Paul Zwaska said recently that the mound at Memorial Stadium was 14 inches high at the start of the 1985 season, but then-groundskeeper Pat Santarone later lowered it -- surprisingly enough -- at the request of the Orioles' pitching staff.
The rules state that the top of the pitching rubber must be 10 inches higher than home plate, but the actual height of the mound seldom is challenged or checked unless it clearly deviates from the norm.
"It was more common for the mound in the visitors' bullpen to be a different height," Zwaska said. "Pat finally got caught when [Texas Rangers manager] Bobby Valentine asked an American League official to check it. Pat was furious, but we had to change it."