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Baseball's Bud Lite

For a fellow who's regarded as one of baseball's old goats, commissioner Bud Selig has been remarkably flexible when it comes to certain innovations. While he was still "acting" commissioner--an impermanence that lasted six years--Selig pushed each league to split into three regional divisions and add a wild card team, thus manufacturing an extra round of postseason play and bringing untold excitement to four additional cities. He also endorsed interleague play in the stated belief it would create heated local rivalries--Cubs-White Sox, Yankees-Mets, Giants-A's and the like.

Selig's real motives, of course, were purely financial: The owner of the Milwaukee Brewers was building the gate and prying loose the public dollar.

Selig's critics (and they are legion) charged that divisional expansion and interleague play would dilute the excitement of the World Series, and they may be right. But baseball's somewhat temporary, conditionally perpetual headman had a fresh solution for that, too: In 1994, he canceled the World Series.

It is that unholy blot on the game for which Bud Selig will doubtless be remembered once he has moved on to the bullpen in the sky. Helpless or unwilling to make labor peace between players (whom he sees as chattel) and owners (whom he embraces as comrades), he canceled the World Series. For baseball fans, this was like banning Fourth of July fireworks or railing against motherhood. It is Bud Selig's legacy.

Now this servant of the owners has undertaken a new form of mischief.
Using Hall of Famer Frank Robinson as his front man, Bud Selig wants to speed baseball up. Fans love the long ball, he reasons, but they want to see it in short games. They hope to go home at a reasonable hour and be nice and fresh for work and school the next morning.

Translation: Let's get the unwashed bastards into the ballpark, stuff them full of overpriced hot dogs, showcase a couple of three-run dingers and hustle everybody out of there. That's the ticket. Little matter that a decent ticket now costs 28 bucks. The meter is running, and we've got board meetings to attend. So if we can get the poor dopes from whom we stole the 1994 World Series in and out of the place before they realize their pockets have been picked, everybody will be a lot better off. Especially the owners, who are paying the electricity bill.

To this end, Officer Robinson, aka "special assistant to the commissioner's office," has lately been making the rounds of assorted major-league ballparks. He's been telling everybody from managers to batboys to house organists to snap things up. Pitchers who once chose to irrigate their kneecaps, plant corn and change hairdos between deliveries are now instructed to stop fussing and throw the thing. Batters seeking TV face-time who regularly step out of the box to perform tai chi with their batting gloves have been warned to stand in and hack, lest baseball's clock police drag them down to the station house. If Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, a heady type, wants to fancy himself George Patton in Sicily, the Seligites say, he can damn well do it on his own time. And Don Baylor's saunters from dugout to hill, presumably to (someday) yank his pitcher, have got to go. It's like watching a kid paint a fence.

But even Selig seems aware that some postmodern delays are here to stay. The bat used by today's hitter has such a thin handle that any fastball on the inside corner can shatter the thing like a matchstick, requiring a trip to the dugout and a perusal of the alternatives. Today's overpaid starting pitcher rarely works more than five or six innings and is followed, in turn, by his team's middle reliever, short man and closer, necessitating much lollygagging and groin-scratching unknown in Big Train Johnson's day. The strike zone has also shrunk to the size of a postage stamp, so hitters can lay off more pitches and prolong their at-bats.

Television networks have managed to inflate the 2:05-minute break between innings to 2:25 for nationally broadcast games: That way, they can run an additional commercial and help defray the unconscionable costs of TV rights.

And what of baseball's current power surge? Clearly, it has been engineered, via lively balls and the tiny strike zone, to rekindle interest in the game. But high-scoring, multi-home-run contests take longer than two-hit shutouts, as anyone who has eaten two full meals and watched seven changes of weather in the course of nine innings at Coors Field can attest.

The time-card shows this: In 1975, the average American League game (with designated hitter in place) took two hours and 25 minutes; last season it took 2:57. National League games were about ten minutes shorter. This season, Selig and Robinson have succeeded in trimming all games by an average of six and a half minutes, but they're still not short enough by baseball's lights.

So, then, what's so terribly wrong with Bud Selig's speed plan?
The answer lies, as it so often does in matters baseballic, in the beautiful and mysterious nature of the game itself. I'm not the first to say it, not by a long shot, but it bears repeating. If you want a two-minute warning, go to a football game. Like the 24-second shot clock? Basketball's your game. In love with the Hollywood Minute, the New York Second and the drive-up wedding (followed, inevitably, by the seven-month marriage)? Then get thee to the drag races.

Baseball is the natural antithesis of all that, a game without a clock, a pastoral exercise for mind and soul that offers welcome respite from the world of hurry-up and frenzy and deadline. That isn't one of its by-products, it's one of its meanings. So if Nomar Garciaparra, the exemplary young shortstop of the Boston Red Sox, wants to incessantly fool with the Velcro closures on his batting gloves and before every pitch perform that feathery little tap dance of his (left foot, right foot, left-right-left), let him have at it. These are the quirks and rituals of baseball that we will savor long after the scores of particular games have been forgotten.

Tell me now. Can't you still see Joe Morgan pumping that trailing arm like a furious piston? Do you not yet relish the mock-spooky conversations between Mark "The Bird" Fidrych and the baseball clutched in his palm? Years from now, will you not continue to see, if only in dimming memory, Baylor's disconsolate trudge to the mound (it's the walk of both jailer and victim) to yank Saberhagen or Kile or Astacio?

Speed up, hell! In beer-league softball, the umpires impatiently herd players out to their positions and a third-strike foul ball means an out. So be it. But leave the real game alone for a change. The greedy people, enslaved by TV, who transplanted the World Series to prime time (presumably so sleepy kids on the East Coast couldn't watch it) are the same people now bellowing to hustle things up. The Atlanta Braves' TV broadcasters can be heard complaining about length--as if they worked for a living. And people who never liked baseball in the first place are demanding that it be spiced up, hastened along, maybe decorated with neon signs. They don't have the patience for David Cone's mound rituals or Barry Bonds's preening because, in essence, they don't have the patience for baseball itself. It is, has always been, a quiet, contemplative game marked by sudden outbursts of great excitement. It's not a game for the short attention span, the shallow mind or the guy who wants to turn the lights out early and go home. Baseball fans, like the extras in pirate movies, don't mind leaving their wristwatches at home.

And our Mr. Selig, the supposed symbol of baseball's timelessness? Instead of going out to the ballgame and meddling with it, he might do well to stay home and do something useful--like making instant pudding. That way, real fans can continue to enjoy the true thing, at its own pace, in its own sweet time: We don't care if we never get back.

Judging by the shouting and fuming, you'd think Bill had proposed to Monica. Or that Saddam Hussein was weighing his options: Continue a successful career in dictatorship, or join Up With People?

Simple fact: Over the weekend, a football player announced he was out of shape and content in his retirement.

Gary Zimmerman, a veteran tackle for the Denver Broncos, will not play in 1998. Is this earth-shattering news? Or even a matter of minor interest? To hear the heated debate on the sports blab shows or the sniping between the daily newspapers, you'd think the Pakistanis were about to drop their atomic bomb on us or that Newt Gingrich blew up those embassies in Africa.

Fact is, a retired football player remained in retirement. Wow.

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