Baseball runs up score, but will it run off fans? Games creep along while hitters tee off on weak pitching

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They've built tiny new ballparks. They've allowed the umpires to shrink the strike zone. They've given baseball fans what they want -- more scoring.

But Tuesday night's 13-10 Orioles loss to the New York Yankees at Camden Yards -- a four-hour, 21-minute marathon that was the longest nine-inning game in major-league history -- may be proof that there can be too much of a good thing.

"I think it's rather embarrassing," said Orioles general manager Pat Gillick about Tuesday night's game, which took 400 pitches to complete.

It's happening all over the majors.

Last month, the Orioles' 26-7 loss to the Texas Rangers took four hours, 15 minutes. Two other 20-run games, the Minnesota Twins' 24-11 victory over the Detroit Tigers (3: 43) and the Montreal Expos' 21-9 victory over the Colorado Rockies (3: 23) also went well past three hours. It was the first time since June 1950 that three teams have scored more than 20 runs in one month.

Major-league executives seem to like it that way. Acting commissioner Bud Selig recently crowed that attendance is up

7 percent to 8 percent. So are television ratings.

"We'd rather have them talking about runs than about labor issues," American League vice president Phyllis Merhige said.

Maybe some fans enjoy it, but baseball purists -- general managers, managers and players -- don't.

"I don't like what's going on out there," New York Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "I guess there's an entertainment factor, but when you get a high-scoring game every day, there's no respect for the pitcher."

Pitchers weren't getting any respect last month, and it showed. April was a record-setting month for hitters. The Orioles' Brady Anderson, a leadoff man who's never hit more than 21 home runs, tied a major-league record with 11 in April (Anderson hit another home run last night).

Tigers pitchers allowed 7.31 earned runs per game last month. The scoring really is out of control in the American League, where the designated hitter rule and smaller ballparks led to a league earned run average of 5.31, more than a run higher than the 4.25 ERA in the National League.

Torre said high-scoring games may be bad for the sport.

"I think it could be," he said. "Your confrontations aren't there. That Bob Welch-Reggie Jackson confrontation [in the 1978 World Series] is not there. The hitters can't win all the time, and the hitters are winning all the time."

Baseball's powers may be causing the offensive explosion by encouraging teams to build smaller, hitter's ballparks modeled after Camden Yards. Texas' Ballpark in Arlington, Cleveland's Jacobs Field and Colorado's Coors Field were built like that. Several others are on the way.

"Do you think they'll build a new ballpark that's a pitcher's park?" Texas general manager Doug Melvin said. "I don't think so."

The offensive outburst cannot be blamed solely on ballparks. Thanks to weightlifting and lighter bats, hitters are getting better. And pitchers are getting worse. Expansion and a rash of arm injuries to several top pitchers have diluted the talent pool.

Then there's the strike zone, which used to be from the armpits to the knees. This off-season, league officials decided to lower the strike zone, making pitches just below the knees strikes. But pitchers say the strike zone isn't lower, it's just smaller.

"I think expanding the strike zone is the No. 1 thing for pitchers," said Jim Kaat, an ESPN announcer and former major-league pitcher.

Baseball experts say Tuesday night's Orioles-Yankees game is what happens when the emphasis is on offense. By the end of the game, only several thousand fans out of the original crowd of 43,117 were still in attendance.

"This game is a little different than the others. Hockey, football and basketball have time limits," Gillick said. "We don't have a time limit. That's one thing nice about a baseball game -- you can relax.

"To me, there is some sort of time limit. The customer, in his mind, has a time limit, and it sure isn't four hours."

Last year, a committee headed by former umpire Steve Palermo issued a report about how to speed up the games. But many of the committee's suggestions -- including raising the mound and making hitters stay in the batter's box -- seem to have been ignored.

Gillick said some of those suggestions must be considered to quicken play and rules changes must be made to provide balance between hitters and pitchers.

"Whether the strike zone is getting worse or the pitching is getting worse, I don't know," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said yesterday. "That game last night, I couldn't believe it."

Neither could the players.

"You had a very explosive game, and people who don't know the game like that," Yankees outfielder Tim Raines said. "But it took 2 1/2 hours to play the first three innings. People got to go to work the next day. I don't think they left because it took so long. It was just getting real cold and real late."

Pub Date: 5/02/96

April runs

Major-league runs scored and homers during the month of April, as researched by the Elias Sports Bureau:

Year .. .. G .. .. HR .. .. .. R

.. . .. .. . ... Avg. .. ... Avg.

1996 ... 359 ... 2.30 .. .. 10.58

1995 .. . 66 ... 2.00 .. .. 10.64

1994 ... 319 ... 2.22 .. .. 10.40

1993 ... 307 ... 1.58 .. ... 9.02

1992 ... 277 ... 1.40 .. ... 8.25

1991 ... 251 ... 1.43 .. ... 8.13

1990 ... 246 ... 1.55 .. ... 8.38

1989 ... 307 ... 1.40 .. ... 8.25

1988 ... 280 ... 1.64 .. ... 8.48

1987 ... 273 ... 2.00 .. ... 9.15

1986 ... 251 ... 1.87 .. ... 8.68

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