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Make the Right Calls on Baseball Reform

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A fundamental problem facing Rob Manfred, the new baseball commissioner, is how to speed up games. They now run well over three hours on average and keep taking longer.

But that's only half the job: the goal should be to make the games both faster and fairer. Both aims can be accomplished if MLB brass is willing to break with some time-honored traditions and revise some of its recent innovations.

First off, there should be no challenges by managers and no need for umpires to "go under the hood" the way NFL referees do.

The way to eliminate time-consuming reviews of close plays is to install an umpire-in-chief (UNC). His job: to keep an eye on things from a TV booth above the field and electronically notify the crew chief on the field of any decision to reverse a call by activating a flashing light on the scoreboard. Umpires would be required to accept the decision from above. Play would continue without appeal by either side. If there is no signal to reverse, the game continues without interruption. Such a system would result in no time wasted waiting for decisions made in NY, as well as assuring the right calls being made. (On bang-bang plays a max of two minutes would be allowed for a UNC decision reversing the call on the field, which would otherwise stand.)

The way it could work was demonstrated when during the Series last year a runner was called out on a force play at second when everyone in the ballpark--except the umpire--knew the Cardinal's shortstop never had control of ball. Such a call would have immediately been overturned by the UNC and play promptly resumed without need for further review.

In an earlier Series game the shortstop didn't come within a yard of tagging second base on an attempted double play but the runner was called out. The bad call on this play, which could have been a crucial turning point, would not have been allowed to stand with an UNC watching.

New rules as well as the new use of technology are also needed. For example, on an intentional walk just let the guy trot to first without making the pitcher toss four meaningless balls.

But to really speed things up, how about a rule that batters be allowed to leave the batter's box only once per AB to tighten their gloves, take a practice swing, scratch an itch, "take inventory" or sulk over a bad call? All of the above can be done just as well in the batter's box. Exemptions would of course be allowed for situations in which the hitter gets something in his eye, there is a distraction on the field or any other good reason. But if a batter steps out of the box without permission or good reason a strike would then automatically be added to the count.

Something also needs to be done to correct the endless bad calls on balls and strikes. How many times has a batter taken a third strike that was mistakenly ruled a ball, and then gotten a hit or crashed a homer to win the game? Not always that dramatic but it happens all too often during too many games. So has the reverse. When a batter is called out on a strike that was actually a ball it can and frequently has altered the outcome of games.

One admittedly controversial new way to be certain balls and strikes are called accurately would be to use Pitch Track to show the location of each pitch on the big scoreboard. The crowd, the batter and the other players will then immediately be able to see if the umpire's call was correct. If it was not the umpire would then be notified to correct his call using the scoreboard signal light. Since no hairline calls would be questioned this would cause little or no delay, get the call right every time and avoid having players and managers unfairly ejected when they have a beef about a bad call. This may be too much of an innovation for purists to stomach, but it is worth thinking about.

It would also restore much needed consistency. The very idea of umpires "establishing" the strike zone is ridiculous. The good old knees-to-letters strike zone should not be subject to the whim of the plate umpire. To be fair to both hitter and pitcher it should be constant from game to game and day to day all season long.

"For lack of a nail, the shoe was lost....." And because of one blown call at the plate or on the bases too many games are being won or lost. This is unacceptable when pennants are often decided by just one run in one game.

MLB has an obligation to see that the right call is made and made quickly. New use of technology and the introduction of some new common-sense rules will result in faster play, fairer calls, happier fans and bigger gates.

John Donnelly, 82, is a retired public affairs executive. In 1949, at age 17, he gave up a promising stickball career to join the Navy. He is now an avid baseball fan who fumes over bad calls against his beloved Nationals.

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