Baseball: Give pitchers - and the fans - a break


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Modern baseball finds me of two minds. I love offense. I hate overkill.

A day at the ballpark, circa 1996, is like a six-pound slice of birthday cake: The first taste may be delicious, but it's bound to get a little stale eventually. When the home run becomes more commonplace than Marty Brennaman's cliches, it is time to consider corrective measures.

Roger Clemens, among other put-upon pitchers, believes the big-league ball has been artifically sweetened in order to inject more offense in the game. While there is much anecdotal evidence to support this claim, we have yet to see any compelling data from the physics community. More likely, the combination of cozier ballparks, more muscular hitters and profound pitching scarcity has created an environment of offensive excess.

With two weeks remaining in the regular season, nine major-league hitters had already struck at least 40 home runs through Saturday night's games. Three others had 39. New York's Andy Pettite, the American League's probable Cy Young Award winner, has won 21 games with a macroscopic earned-run average of 4.13.

I could go on. Colorado's Andres Galarraga, a player of such magnitude I have yet to type his surname with confidence, has already surpassed Hank Aaron's best RBI season. Both the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A's figure to break the single-season team home run record of the Maris-Mantle '61 Yankees.

Nothing against progress, but baseball's milestones start to lose their meaning when the ballgames become indistinguishable from batting practice. The games themselves sometimes suffer from a lack of suspense.

A 13-12 game can be every bit as absorbing as a 2-1 gut-wrencher - that is unless you have somewhere else to go - but sensory overload starts to set in around the fifth pitching change. When runs are so plentiful, strategy becomes almost superfluous. To build runs through bunts, hitting behind the runner or sacrifice flies is to waste outs that might be better spent on swinging from the heels.

Instead of trying to predict the right pitch for a hit-and-run, or to anticipate a pitchout, today's involved spectator is reduced to guessing how long the manager will wait before reaching for the bullpen phone.

If this is what today's fan wants from baseball - six months of Home Run Derby - so be it. Lord knows, the grand old game must be made more appealing to the Nintendo generation. Yet when an ordinary right-handed hitter checks his swing and hits a routine fly ball off the right-field fence - it happened, so help me, the other night at Camden Yards - it is time to evaluate his equipment.

Jack Nicklaus frets that high-tech golf clubs and ballistic balls are rendering the classic old courses obsolete. Similarly, tennis purists yearn for the stirring rallies of the wooden racket era.

Professional baseball has successfully resisted the lure of the aluminum bat, but it might benefit from a mushier ball. Short of that, or trying to enforce a more generous strike zone, the majors might want to consider a return to the pre-1969 pitcher's mound.

The mound was lowered to 10 inches that spring to establish uniformity, to enhance hitting and, primarily, to revive attendance. The year before, the St. Louis Cardinals' Bob Gibson compiled an earned-run average of 1.12. Baseball was determined to put pitchers' duels in their place.

The rulesmakers succeeded in making pitchers less intimidating and greatly emasculated the overhand curve ball. They also gave rise to a generation of pitchers who are petrified of finding the plate. Though TV is the most obvious reason today's games often run three hours, pitchers also contribute through their reluctance to challenge hitters when behind in the count.

Ray Knight's term for this is being ''bat-shy.'' It refers to pitchers who keep trying to paint the corners with pitches they can't control instead of firing fastballs.

It is an insidious affliction, and a leading cause of longer at bats, proliferating baserunners and grand-slam home runs. In 1968, the average National League game included 5.3 walks. Last year, that figure was 6.6.

With another round of expansion scheduled, the situation figures to deteriorate. If baseball is to restore balance between offense and defense, the pitchers will need a break.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Sept. 15, 1996.