Coach's Corner

The baseball season is underway, sort of, and I'm riddled with guilt. I feel guilty there was no pre-season preview. I'm expected to know where Oral Hershiser's playing, what's wrong with Johnny Oates' wife, and can the Rangers possibly be as bad as they were last year? But the truth is, I don't care. My problems with baseball are not primarily political: Interest has been waning slowly over the last decade. Baseball is fighting the battle for the attention of a finite number of fans - in particular, young fans. It doesn't have to lose this fight. The game itself is solid. This is what baseball needs to do to regain its edge and maybe get me back in its corner.

The game's too long... Pretty insightful, huh? Two to two-and-a-half hours are tolerable, even for Type As like me. Criticism of the length of a game today always begins, "Kids today won't sit still..." It's got nothing to do with "kids today." You think my grandpa wanted to spend the whole day sweltering in Sportsman's Park? He had a life, too! Today, a baseball game is likely to take a stuporous four hours to complete. Why? Nothing's changed in 100 years - still three outs and nine innings - to explain any lengthening, let alone doubling the time of the game. Umpires refuse to call the strike zone as it's clearly defined. Batters are passive, going deep into a count looking for a crowd-tingling walk. The game drags. Batters adjust their gonads after each pitch. Pitchers fiddle about on the mound like fussy old ladies meeting in the park to do some knitting. The umpires, for some reason, allow it to happen. Rules to keep the game moving are there: they're simply not enforced....

Managers want Tony Kubek and Al Michaels to comment to the nation about their "field generalship." To prove they understand a boy's game, managers stop the game for 10 minutes to change pitchers, so a lefty can face a lefty. Then, they do it again, usually after the brilliant strategy blows up when a kid doubles, for his first big league hit. They hold up the game, again, to bring in a righty "playing the percentages," says Al, up in the booth. The pitcher walks the guy, hitting .172, on four pitches. Forty-five minutes have elapsed and there are still only two outs. This is not an exaggeration. Make a rule to say a pitcher must face three batters....

Infielders, sub-groups of infielders, a sub-sub-group, consisting of an elderly, portly third base coach, a catcher, and a uni-lingual second baseman from Santo Domingo meet often out on the pitcher's mound to discuss events of the day. They meet more frequently than the United Nations. Where's the coffee and doughnuts? Eliminate these chit-chats....

Each time a pitcher throws a ball in the general direction of a batter's body, what's always referred to in baseball as a "melee" breaks out. Fat guys, skinny guys, muscle-bound guys, real old guys, all mucking about. It's undignified and adds 25 minutes to the game. In hockey, they heavily fine everyone off the bench. Go one step further: Shoot the first player who charges the mound. I believe "melees" will wane....

A wee fellow, who's stolen ten bases in his career, gets on first and the pitcher acts like Ty Cobb himself is 30 feet away. The frightened pitcher throws over to first 10 times. "Keeping the runner close," says Tony and then, inevitably, walks the hitter. Or, on the 14th toss the base-runner easily steals second. You get five tosses over to first. If you make one more you get shot, too!....

Stop expansion!! There are not enough good athletes to stock 24 teams, let alone 28. The point isn't that Memphis or some other godforsaken place has a lot of bored people who'll come watch. The point is, as the talent level becomes further depleted, no one outside of Memphis will turn the game on....

Free agency: In basketball and, to a lesser extent football, team's cores are kept intact. NBA teams don't change much from year to year, despite free agency. In Dallas, you can bet Kidd, Jackson, and Mashburn will be together for a long time. Football, with its huge rosters, sees more confusing movement, perhaps due to the anonymous nature of the equipment-laden players. Fans don't care that much. Cowscum is Cowscum. Still, the basic cores of teams stay intact. This is not because of owners being nice folks. It's because of the salary cap. Very few teams, good ones anyway, could sign a Young or a Smith and stay under the cap. An unexpected bonus: Fans can count on watching the same players each year. I, for one, don't root for a uniform. I get emotionally involved in the personalities. As in real life, I'm slow to attach and slower to detach. I'm a Taurus. I don't like change!

Of all sports, baseball seems the most injured by the wild - the strike was supposed to settle these issues - and capricious movement of players. It's hard work keeping track of who's playing for whom. I hate this. I work hard enough in real life. Reading Sports Illustrated is supposed to be fun. Players and owners must realize, what's good for them today is not necessarily good, in the long run, for the game.

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