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An Umpire Speaks Up About the Length of Yankees-Red Sox Games

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After the Mets won their Opening Day game on Monday, left fielder Jason Bay was asked if he had watched the Yankees play the Red Sox on television the night before. Bay came to the Mets from Boston as a free agent this season.

He said he was an interested viewer but one with a limited attention span.

"I only made it until about the sixth inning and then I was toast,'' Bay said with a chuckle. "Those American League games.''

He was referring to the length of American League games, specifically those of the Red Sox and Yankees. When they play each other, it often takes about four hours to finish. Even adults who care fall asleep.

It is one thing for sports reporters and fans to grouse about the problem. But the level of debate became elevated Thursday with a story in The Record of Hackensack (N.J.) when Joe West, the chief of the umpiring crew for the series, called the length of Yankees-Red Sox games "a disgrace to baseball.''

"They're two of the best teams in baseball. Why are they playing the slowest?'' West told reporter Jeff Roberts. ``It's pathetic and embarrassing. They take too long to play. It's sad when school kids can't watch the end of the game because it ends too late.''

The first two games of the series lasted 3 hours and 46 minutes and 3:48. The third game, Wednesday night, took 10 innings but mercifully concluded in a snappy 3:21.

Another umpire on the crew, Angel Hernandez, tried to speed up Tuesday's game when he worked behind home plate by refusing to call timeout when players requested it.

"Angel did everything he could,'' West told The Record. "The players aren't working with us. This is embarrassing, a disgrace to baseball.''

As recently as the 1980s, baseball games often finished in under three hours. Among the reasons for the increasing length are the longer commercial breaks every half-inning and the use of relief pitchers by managers to gain advantage in situational matchups.

If you bring in a left-handed relief specialist to face a left-handed pinch-hitter, everyone stands around and waits for two or three minutes until the reliefer arrives and warms up.

Another problem can be traced to the umpires. Although the condition has improved in recent years, it became obvious in the 1990s that umpires -- particularly int he American League -- called fewer strikes, which led to longer counts in many at-bats.

When umpires widen their strike zones and call strikes, it forces batters to swing bats, which either puts the ball in play or puts a hitter back in the dugout with a strikeout.

One of my favorite VHS tapes is of a kinescope of a 1952 World Series game between the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. It is a tense and important game, won by the Yankees, 3-2, and it takes only 2:56 to finish.

It is striking to a modern sensibility to watch the tempo of the game, the pace of play. At the plate, batters rarely step out of the batters' box. Even when stalling for time, they tend to put only one foot outside the chalk line as they collect themselves.

On the mound, pitchers rarely walk around; visits by the catcher for conversations are fewer and briefer than you see today.

It would be unfair to complain that only baseball suffers from long games.

Pro and college football games often go 3:30 or four hours when they used to be 2:30. College basketball games, when close at the end, sometimes become ludicrous with intentional fouls and strategic timeouts that turn an event of speed and pace into a tedious free-throw contest in which everyone stands around watching one guy try to sink a series of one-point shots.

But baseball, by its very nature, is a deliberate affair. Even on its speediest days, 90 per cent of the participants stand still 90 per cent of the game. Fans in the stadiums or on TV spend most of the game watching grass grow.

That's not all bad. Part of baseball's charm is its leisurely evocation of summer's slower pace. But even those who love the game have a breaking point. The Yankees and Red Sox have pushed us there. Thanks to Joe West, the conversation can accelerate and solutions can be sought.

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