Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Hustle In, Hustle Out, Keep the Game Moving

‘Twas a summer Saturday, early in the afternoon, right about the time it starts getting really hot … right about the time a fastpitch umpire with minimal cache gets thrown a little work. It was an insignificant (except for those playing and watching the games, of course) little tournament at a time when there was a lot of youth softball being played hereabouts – the young ladies of South Texas, particularly Greater Houston, represented well at all competitive levels.

I’d barely broken a sweat that hot day when I got myself into a little encounter with an out-of-town coach, an old-timer I knew casually from my coaching days. We were at the first change-over, going into the bottom of the first inning; I’d just summoned the warm-up ball from the field. That was when it happened … Ol’ Boy from Beaumont, loud enough only to be heard by me and maybe his catcher, complimented my attempt to keep the game moving, as the rules mandate and they preach at the clinics, grumbling at the “pace” of his team’s prior games.

I turned down few opportunities to call ball for several more years, kept pretty busy, perhaps even gained a modicum of that “cache” (equally possible that I flatter myself unduly).

Coach and I would have a good many subsequent “encounters” as the middle-school grand-daughter he was coaching that fateful day grew into a pretty good left-handed pitcher and, befitting a coach’s kid, a feisty, heady player … every last one of them pleasant, even when he thought I missed a call, though none ever quite so validating.

Funny, such a moment is not the sort of thing about which one would boast in the designated umpire’s corner of the parking lot. Indeed, such strict, by-the-book punctuality would be considered an attack-of-sorts upon that amorphous commodity known as “umpire discretion.” One primary manner in which this discretionary authority gets exercised is in the matter of time management, specifically the ending of one’s game promptly. In the eyes of some, keeping one’s field “on time” is viewed as an art. Shenanigans regarding late-game time issues, involving both officials and coaches, can morph into common practice and ultimately into a set of unwritten rules. (Even a prominently displayed game clock can eliminate only so many problems.)

As Major League Baseball yet again professes a desire to address the ponderous pace of play and consequent excessive length of its games, maybe they should consider what an old softball coach’s gut was telling him one summer Saturday a while back. MLB could shorten its games simply by reducing the length of time between innings. A regulation game requires 17 such stoppages in play (16 if the home team doesn’t need its last “raps”). Simply slice a minute or minute-and-a-half each time – instant shorter game, perhaps even more crisp play as tends to occur with pitchers who do not dawdle.

Of course, such an adjustment is likely to be impractical under the sport’s current “economic model” – a between-inning reduction of 90 seconds would eliminate from both radio and TV broadcasts about 300 30-second advertising spots per team per week.

“Moneyball” can mean a lot of things.