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Play ball! Quickly! Baseball tries to speed up

First Posted: 10:42 pm - March 3rd, 2015 - Views

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Orioles pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez warms up between innings as a clock on the outfield wall counts down from three minutes to help speed up the pace of play.

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — With large, glowing red numbers, the timer on the center-field wall at Goodyear Ballpark ticked down Tuesday, counting off seconds and ushering in change.

Baseball, the timeless game of endless summers, went on the clock.

Major League Baseball introduced its new pace of play initiatives during five exhibition games in Arizona and Florida. As expected, there were a few minor glitches as players, managers, umpires and fans adjusted to the “rules” designed to make games shorter, more appealing to TV viewers and perhaps lure the next generation of fans to a sport fighting for attention.

On this opening day, baseball had a slightly different look.

“I’ve never worked a game in the history of baseball that has a countdown clock,” said umpire Dan Iassogna, who kept an eye on second base as the Pittsburgh Pirates and Toronto Blue Jays played in Dunedin, Florida. “That was a little different.”

Under the pace of play provisions, hitters are required to keep one foot in the batter’s box after taking a pitch. Not everyone seemed to get the memo.

New York Yankees leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury took the first pitch of the game — and this spring, in fact — from Philadelphia’s David Buchanan and immediately stepped outside the white-chalked line, maintaining his routine.

These days, that’s a no-no — not a no-hitter. But Vic Carapazza, the plate umpire for the exhibition in Clearwater, Florida, gave no signal to Ellsbury that he was guilty of breaking one of the new rules.

MLB is using the spring training schedule and regular-season games in April to break everyone in. But starting May 1, offenders will face discipline — most likely fines.

Along with keeping batters close to the plate, pitchers are required to have their warmup tosses completed before the clock — set at 2:25 for regionally televised games and 2:45 for national broadcasts — is down to 30 seconds and the batter must be ready by the time the clock reaches 5 seconds.

After Cincinnati drubbed Cleveland 10-0 in a fairly tidy 2 hours, 50 minutes, Indians manager Terry Francona said he believes the changes will be smooth and players and umpires will work together to tweak any problems. There will be issues and controversy, but that’s baseball.

“I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal. I really don’t,” Francona said. “It’s going to be that day and it’s hot and everyone’s a little on edge, that’s when you’re going to see something. But that’s what you see during the games anyway.”

Two clocks were installed at all ballparks throughout the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues, and for the most part the time pieces went unnoticed. Players hustled on and off the field between innings, most of them seemingly unaware that they were being timed.

“I tried not to pay attention to it,” said San Francisco ace Madison Bumgarner, last year’s World Series MVP. “It’s going to be that way during the season. I didn’t pay attention. I can usually be ready.”

In a few instances, hitters caught themselves about to drift outside the dirt near home plate and made sure they kept at least a cleat on the edge of the box.

“I reminded a lot of guys today, ‘Oh, you can’t do that. You do that and we’re going to write you up for that. You can’t do that’,” said umpire James Hoye, who called balls and strikes for the Pirates and Blue Jays. “They’d laugh and say, ‘Oh, sorry.’”

By the way, it took 3 hours, 17 minutes for Pittsburgh to beat Toronto 8-7. The average MLB gametime in the regular season last year was 3:02.

Ellsbury was given the benefit of the doubt for his misstep. He won’t be as lucky in the months ahead. On Day One, crew chief Tom Hallion and his colleagues weren’t enforcing anything.

“He’s already got enough on his mind, the first pitch of spring training, and now he’s got to remember to stay in the box,” said Hallion, who was at first for the opener. “It’s a work in progress. It’s the first game and we’ll go from here. It’s going to take some work. It’s a change for everybody. It’s not going to get fixed on the first day.”

Fans, too, had to adjust.

As he took his seat a few rows behind Cleveland’s dugout, Glen Pawlak of Concord, Ohio, immediately noticed the clock situated in center field, just to the right of one of the giant palm trees standing guard in Goodyear at the spring home shared by the Reds and Indians.

Pawlak, happy to be away from the Ohio winter and visiting Arizona with his wife, Jan, and son, Brenden, was eager to see how baseball might change.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “It’s a new adaptation to the game. TV viewers these days have a very short attention span. I think football and some of the other sports with replay and so forth have a distinct advantage to be able to fill in some of that space in between. The changes are subtle, and it’s new so it’s definitely something for everyone to talk about.”

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