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Controversy On BB’s Catcher’s Box

July 24, 2000

ATLANTA (AP) _ The 43-inch-wide, chalk-lined catcher’s box has been one of baseball’s most overlooked dimensions.

This is a game built on numbers like 90 feet between the bases and 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.

The catcher’s box? That’s the three-sided white line that the grounds crew neatly draws in the dirt before the game _ and everyone quickly wipes away and ignores.

Well, not anymore.

The Atlanta Braves, long accused of benefiting from calls outside the strike zone, were apparently caught fudging on the catcher’s box dimensions at Turner Field last month.

The issue flared again this weekend when New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine argued vehemently with the home-plate umpire over where Braves catcher Paul Bako was setting up.

``The catcher used to set up outside to get the pitcher to throw a ball that the hitter would swing at,″ Valentine said. ``It’s evolved into a situation where the catcher is sitting outside to get that pitch called a strike.″

In other words, if a catcher sets up wide of the plate and doesn’t have to move his glove while catching the pitch, the umpire is more inclined to call a strike.

The Braves, on the other hand, insist they get no special treatment from the umpires.

``It’s Mickey Mouse,″ said four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, who loves pitching on the outside corner. ``If they want us to throw it down the middle, we can throw it underhanded.″

A national television audience Saturday saw Bako clearly setting up with his right foot outside the box against right-handed hitters, supposedly grounds for a balk call. But umpire Andrew Fletcher didn’t take action.

``He told me when he looked down at Bako, he was always in the box,″ Valentine said. ``I can understand that. It’s a hard thing to regulate with the umpire standing where he stands. I also understand that it’s hard to stay in the box for certain catchers and on certain pitches.″

The Braves pointed out that New York catcher Mike Piazza also drifted outside the box, though his foot wasn’t as far over the line as Bako’s.

``Let us play,″ Maddux said. ``If the ball’s not over the plate, call it a ball.″

The catcher’s box became an issue last year, when major league baseball was making a concerted effort to shrink the strike zone. Braves catcher Javy Lopez was warned in a game against Milwaukee.

The matter faded until the Brewers visited Atlanta in late June. Even with a new manager _ Davey Lopes instead of Phil Garner _ Milwaukee continued to complain about the positioning of Lopez.

The following night, plate umpire John Shulock called a rare catcher’s balk against Fernando Lunar, the Braves backup catcher at the time. Manager Bobby Cox stormed out to argue and was ejected.

Compounding the controversy, TBS _ the Braves’ flagship television station and owned by the same company, Time Warner _ aired video showing the dimensions of the catcher’s box were 4 to 5 inches smaller when the balk was called than the previous game.

The implication was clear: The Braves had been drawing a wider box than the rules allow, then went back to the proper dimensions when it became apparent the umpires might measure the box.

Furious, the Braves banned four TBS broadcasters from the team’s charter flights, though the decision was quickly overturned.

Baseball officials investigated the matter but took no action against the Braves. However, a memo was distributed to umpires a few weeks ago about enforcement of the rule.

``They wanted to reiterate to umpires that they could re-chalk during a game,″ baseball spokesman Pat Courtney said.

Lopez and Bako, who was acquired on waivers Friday from the Florida Marlins, defended their positioning.

``Everybody has a different body structure,″ the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Bako said. ``I set up wider than most catchers do. The ump was doing his job, and I was doing mine. It’s up to the ump to make the call.″

Lopez, who is 6-3, 200 pounds, pointed out that former major-league catcher Tony Pena was famous for his almost split-like stance, with one leg clearly stuck outside the box.

``I’m still going to set up where I want to set up,″ said Lopez, who did just that in Sunday night’s 1-0 victory over the Mets. ``I’m not going to look down the whole time to see where I’m standing.″

Several times, Lopez set up with a foot outside the box. But Piazza did, too, and there were no arguments over the issue from either team.

Besides, the chalked-lined dimensions were basically wiped away by the fourth inning, making it impossible to tell whether either team was following the rules. The umpires did not ask the grounds crew to put down a new chalk line.

``It’s a little bit disappointing,″ Lopez said. ``Everybody is looking at what I’m doing. They’re not even looking at our pitchers anymore.″

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