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Pirates Baseball 2001:New strike zone, if called, figures to have batters and pitchers reeling

Sunday, April 01, 2001

By Paul Meyer, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

You'll hear much talk about strikes this season. There's the strike the players might go on at some point before next season, but we'll not deal with that here.

There's the low strike, which this season is supposed to be any pitch that crosses the plate at the top of the batter's knees -- and not perhaps 3 or 4 inches below his knees.

And there's the high strike, which this season is supposed to be any pitch that crosses the plate at the midpoint between the top of the batter's shoulders and the top of his uniform pants.

"They're going back to the strike zone we had when I played," said Pirates coach Russ Nixon, 66, a former catcher. "The one they used in the 1950s and '60s and the first part of the '70s.

"To me, the strike zone started getting tighter in the last 10 years. It was about the size of a keyhole, it seemed. It was at the point of being ridiculous. And we allowed it to happen. The industry let it happen -- until finally somebody said, 'Something's got to be done.' "

"We're going to get back to calling the strike zone as it's written in the rule book," said Jimmy Reynolds, a third-year umpire who gave the Pirates a demonstration of today's strike zone in late February. "Over the years, [the strike zone] has migrated down."

Last season, for example, it seemed a pitch that crossed the plate at the middle of a batter's shins could be called a strike. But a pitch that crossed the plate at the batter's belly button was not ruled a strike.

Then toss in the feeling that umpires gave greater leeway to pitchers on pitches that were a few inches off the plate away rather than in, and what one had was an amoeba-like strike zone compared to the one called 30 or 40 or 50 years ago.

"I think they should call the pitch that's in a strike," Pirates catcher Keith Osik said. "They'll call a pitch that's 3 or 4 inches off the plate away a strike, but a pitch that's an inch off the plate inside they won't call a strike."

This year, the umpires are supposed to use a standard strike zone. No more Greg Maddux-Tom Glavine "strikes" that appear outside. No more really low "strikes." And no more "balls" on pitches that you'd swear were thrown right over what's usually considered the heart of the plate.

And no more pitches "on the black" being called strikes, either.

According to Reynolds, a pitch must cross the white of the 17-inch-wide plate to be ruled a strike. Pitches "on the black" are balls.

So throw out that old "Gosh, he's really painting the black" to describe a good control pitcher. You "paint the black" now, you'll walk the ballpark.

At least in theory.

"Baseball wants us to call the plate," Reynolds said. "We're going to give you what the plate is. That's what my bosses are asking. We're going to do what they want us to do."

Major League Baseball insists all umpires will use the same strike zone.

It didn't take long for players to see in spring training that the high strike definitely will be called. In the Pirates' first exhibition game, Jason Kendall took a pitch that obviously was high -- even by the new standard -- and it was called a third strike.

A week later, in a game against Houston, John Vander Wal took a 3-2 pitch that in the old days -- say, last season -- would have been called a ball because it was too high. On that day anyway, the pitch was ruled a strike, and Vander Wal took a seat.

"I was upset," Vander Wal said, "but if the umpire keeps the same strike zone for everybody, no problem. I think at the beginning of the season, it's going to be, uh, confusing, but I feel there gradually will be some control to it.

"But there will be some disgruntled people early on. For sure, there will be disgruntled pitchers early if that pitch 2 or 3 inches off the plate [away] is not called a strike. If I were a pitcher, I'd rather have the old strike zone."

Won't happen, the umpires say.

"Baseball wants a comprehensive strike zone," said Randy Marsh, a 20-year veteran who's a crew chief. "There won't be any 'fading' out there on pitches. It has to be on the inside corner or the outside corner. I don't think it's going to be a major adjustment."

Marsh said before the exhibition schedule began in March, five umpires showed up for a Houston intrasquad game on their own to study pitches.

"One umpire was behind the plate and four others stood to the side," Marsh said. "If there was a question about high and low, they talked about it."

On another day, Marsh and umpire Charlie Reliford went to Atlanta's camp and "called" pitches while nine Braves pitchers threw on the side.

"We know baseball is serious about this," Marsh said late in spring training. "I think the umpires are adjusting quite fast to it."

"Are [the umpires] going to master this by the end of spring training?" Reynolds wondered. "I think everybody learns at a different pace. It might take some guys two years."

"In the spring training games, there were maybe five or six pitches a game [that were called differently this year]," Kendall said. "We're not really going to know if the umpires are going to do it until the season starts."

"The umpires have told me they're definitely serious," Osik said. "I've asked if they're really going to do it, and they've said yes."

"This is not going to be like some things in the past that we've called for two weeks and then baseball sends out a bulletin that says, 'OK, don't call it,' " Marsh said.

To the fans, the new "high strike" probably will be more noticeable than the new "low strike." Perhaps because there won't be that many and they'll stand out more.

"In spring training -- and I know that was early -- it seemed the umpires were more worried about calling the high pitch [rather than the low strike]," Osik said. "A pitcher usually doesn't want to pitch up. Those are the pitches that usually get hit about 500 feet."

You'll also notice this season that pitches which are way high -- and inside -- could cost a pitcher. Baseball has told umpires they can eject a pitcher if they deem he deliberately threw a pitch at a batter's head. The umpire does not have to warn the pitcher, as was the case.

"The umpires have always had that authority," said Frank Robinson, baseball's vice-president in charge of discipline. "We just want to reinforce it and make it clear they would have our backing if they took that action."

This reinforcement is designed to cut down on in-game brawls that make ESPN highlight reels regularly.

"It's drastic, but we're trying to eliminate pitchers throwing at guys' heads," Marsh said. "This is something Frank is very serious about."

Each umpiring crew will be notified before a series if there have been untoward incidents between the teams recently which might prompt retaliation pitches.

"Any kind of incident will be put into a computer, and every crew will have it within two hours of the game being over," Marsh said.

However, it's the high strike -- not the way-high-and-inside pitch -- that probably will draw the most coverage, especially early in the season.

And that's just fine with Russ Nixon.

"When I played, umpires were pretty liberal with the strike zone," he said. "I remember Ed Runge would say to the hitters, 'You know how I umpire, so be ready to swing. And I don't want to hear any complaints.' And nobody did complain.

"Ed kind of felt that if a hitter could hit a pitch, it was a strike. You had to cover a pretty good area with your bat, but I felt comfortable [with that strike zone] as a player and I felt comfortable with it as a manager.

"I'm glad to see it's changing. I'm really glad. I think pitching's going to come back some. The game's will be faster -- and just as exciting. Heck, maybe even more exciting."

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