Countdown on as baseball readies for pace of play rules
GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) — During his playing career, Mike Hargrove’s unique routine at the plate went something like this: step into the batter’s box, adjust gloves, brush lip, tap cleats with bat to remove dirt, check helmet, tug at jersey sleeve, hitch up pants, check right thumb protector. Repeat.
It earned him a classic nickname, “The Human Rain Delay.”
These days, Hargrove’s ritual — he claims it only lasted 19 seconds — would not only be frowned upon, but possibly get him fined under Major League Baseball’s new pace of play initiatives designed to speed up a game many purists believe doesn’t need more tinkering.
“Grover would be playing for free,” joked Indians skipper Terry Francona.
On Tuesday, the new pace of play rules will be introduced on the field in five exhibition games in Arizona and Florida.
To this point, players have adopted a let’s-see-what-happens stance about hitters being required to keep one foot in the batter’s box, pitchers needing to complete their warmup tosses within a certain time period, managers staying in the dugout for instant replay challenges and generally everyone keeping the game moving along.
For the first time, baseball, the summer game romanticized by generations for its timelessness, will be on the clock. And those newly installed clocks will be in full view for fans.
Once there are three outs, inning breaks will be counted down from 2 minutes, 25 seconds for locally televised games and 2:45 for nationally televised games. Pitchers must throw their last warmup pitches before 30 seconds remaining and the batter must be in the box from 20 to 5 seconds left.
MLB, with the blessing of the players’ union, is hoping to shorten the length of games — the average was just over 3 hours in 2014 — and eliminate delays to make it more appealing to TV audiences and those in the stands. During spring games and through regular-season games in April, players will not face any discipline should they not adhere to the clock or an umpire’s suggestion to stay in the box.
That changes on May 1, when players can be fined. But on the eve of baseball’s spring timing experiment, everyone wondered what might be ahead.
“I hope it’s not a distraction,” Kansas City center fielder Lorenzo Cain said as the Royals dodged the rain Monday in Surprise, Arizona. “I definitely don’t want to get fined, I need all my money. I definitely don’t want to get fined. I’m going to do the best I can. If it’s the rule, we have to try to abide by the rules and just go from there.”
Boston slugger David Ortiz has been one of the most outspoken critics of the changes. Big Papi argues that any interruption of his at-bat routine makes it easier for pitchers to get him out. Ortiz, though, has softened his stance and is adjusting.
As he prepared to take batting practice last week in Fort Myers, Florida, Ortiz yelled to himself, “Stay in the box!” before stepping up to the plate.
Hargrove, now a special adviser to the Indians, said some hitters step out gain their composure and get an edge on a pitcher. Others are simply posturing.
“A lot of the guys, they look like a peacock,” Hargrove said. ”‘Here I am, watch me.’ If a guy has a purpose that’s part of the game, you shouldn’t legislate that out of the game.”
It’s a game of adjustments, after all, and Francona believes hitters will be the ones who might need more time to adapt to having to stay in the box.
“For some of the veterans it may be a test because if you’re used to doing something for years and years and years, your first thought after an umpire calls a borderline pitch is to go out and regroup,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how that’s handled.”
During his tour of training camps over the past week, Tony Clark, head of the players’ union, has heard feedback from players concerned their careers could be impacted by the changes. A former All-Star first baseman, Clark said his biggest concern is making sure the game’s integrity is not compromised.
“These guidelines that we’ve put in place are not put in place to create havoc,” Clark said. “They’re not put in place to reinvent the wheel. They’re put in place in such a way to see if the game can continue to move and if there are things around the edges where adjustments can be made that don’t affect the way that you’re going to perform.
“As much as we hope that it doesn’t adversely affect the play, we don’t know what’s going to happen until the lights come on and guys get into it.”
At Goodyear Ballpark, two clocks — one on the outfield wall, the other behind home plate — have been installed to keep the game ticking. Similar digital clocks will be visible throughout spring training.
The Indians and the Cincinnati Reds share the Goodyear complex, and they play each other Tuesday.
The thought of a timing instrument anywhere near a baseball game is almost sacrilegious to some fans.
“I don’t mind the pace,” Evan Fiorelli of Owings Mills, Maryland, said while leaning on a fence at one of the back fields at the Baltimore Orioles’ complex in Sarasota, Florida.
“I know it’s gotten longer and longer over the years. That’s baseball,” he said. “It’s a game of no time. You can take as long as you want.”