Fewer runs make game shorter, but better?


Baseball's "Operation Speedup" won't start until two weeks from today, but this year's All-Star Game provided an early indication of what to expect. Fewer runs, better pitching and more emphasis on defense.

Those ingredients, however, won't kick in until next year, when the operation's second phase (a higher pitching mound and more liberal strike zone) is scheduled to take effect. That's when baseball takes its big gamble -- sacrificing offense.

The National League's 3-2 victory Tuesday night was recorded in two hours and 40 minutes -- 13 minutes faster than the average game the first half of the season. That happened even though there were no artificial shortcuts.

When it comes to speeding up the game, dominant pitching can even overcome the prolonged break (two minutes, 25 seconds) between each half-inning. At the urging of former umpire Steve Palermo, who had the seemingly impossible charge of finding ways to hasten play, that's one area that will be addressed in two weeks.

Reducing commercial time by 20 seconds (except on nationally televised games) between each half-inning will save about six minutes. Keeping hitters in the proximity of the batter's box at all times; putting pressure on pitchers to throw the ball in a reasonable amount of time (12 seconds); and requiring pitching changes to be made quicker could eliminate a few more minutes.

With many games stretching beyond three hours, those few minutes can be vital -- the difference in making or missing TV's 11 o'clock news or the newspaper's first edition.

But the real test won't come until next year. If baseball follows through with the second stage of Palermo's plan, as expected, the length of the game is not all that will decrease. Giving pitchers an additional two inches at their base of operation will dramatically lower run production.

The last time baseball made such a drastic change, it went the other way to liven a game often considered too dull because of a lack of scoring. They took away the pitcher's dominant edge, lowering the mound from 15 to 10 inches.

The change did more than achieve it's desired purpose of putting more runs on the scoreboard. The amount of time needed to play nine innings increased proportionately. The combination may also have put more strain on a pitcher's arm, possibly contributing to injuries, and most definitely influenced the role of the late-inning closer.

What baseball is now trying to do is find an acceptable compromise.

Some will argue that the second phase of "Operation Speedup" also requires little more than common sense. But it still requires tinkering with the game's basic structure, which makes it a gamble.

Are shorter games worth the price -- sacrificing runs? That, and that alone, will determine if the length of games is as big a problem as perceived.

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