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PERHAPS THE UMPIRES ARE STRIKING OUT

In 1962, at the New York Mets' first spring training, manager Casey Stengel took his ragged squad -- it would lose 120 games that season --for a walk around the diamond. "Them are the bases," he explained.

Stengel sometimes muffed details. "It's a great honor for me to be joining the Knickerbockers," he said when announced as the Mets manager. But he got basics right, as when he explained why the first player the Mets drafted was a catcher: "You gotta start with a catcher, 'cause if you don't you'll have all passed balls."

Baseball has recently been reacquiring a back-to-basics spirit, as with Camden Yards and the other intimate, baseball-only "retro" ballparks. About 25 years ago the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds wanted Riverfront Stadium -- one of those ghastly concrete doughnuts built to accommodate both football and baseball -- to smell like a bakery, so fans would be happy (and hungry). He was unable to find a satisfactory spray scent, which is just as well, because ballparks like Riverfront do not need to be sprayed, they need to be dismantled.

Baseball's back-to-basics movement should be explained to Richie Phillips, the Philadelphia lawyer who speaks for the game's imperial judiciary, the umpires. As a crackerjack season reaches its postseason crescendo, baseball people are puzzling over a ukase issued by Phillips. He says umpires are oppressed and, having adopted at the beginning of the season a "low tolerance" policy toward abuse, are now adopting "no tolerance."

He says players, managers, coaches and even trainers "physically assault umpires, spray tobacco in their faces, curse them and otherwise attempt to denigrate them and humiliate them." Certainly on-field relations have become increasingly confrontational, but this is partly because some umpires have become intolerant of criticism of their erratic and eccentric umpiring.

Phillips' grievances include "biased broadcasters" who are "second-guessing umpires, not only about judgment, but about things they know little or nothing about," including "mechanics, positioning, and official rules." And Phillips says "networks continue to provide two-dimensional, contrived distortions to the viewers." People are second-guessing umpires? What a concept.

Granted, television can distort events. But umpires' work can be judged by using various camera angles. Most of that work is superb. Some of it is shoddy. And shoddy umpires, unlike failing players, are not sent back to the minor leagues.

Phillips should not raise the matter of rules because there is not an umpire in either league --not one -- who administers baseball's most basic rule, who calls a strike zone as large as the one defined by the rule book. And it is not unusual for the dominant force in a game to be the home-plate umpire.

The disappearance of the high strike -- of the upper third of the strike zone -- has increased the number of pitches thrown, which is one reason why games have become longer. On May 1, 1920, Brooklyn and Boston played to a 1-1 tie ended by darkness after 26 innings. The starting pitchers went the distance in the game, which lasted 3 hours and 50 minutes -- about nine minutes an inning. This year the average game took 2 hours and 52 minutes, or about 19 minutes an inning.

Change is a constant in baseball, so comparisons, although part of the fun, are problematic. Baseball's hold on its fans' attention derives from the fact that what happens today invites comparison with a full century of competition. How strong can that hold be? In 1962 New York State abolished the death penalty, and the warden of Sing Sing said that when the news reached the 20 men on death row, "There was no reaction at all. They just kept listening to the ballgame." They were listening to Stengel's Mets.

Washington Post Writers Group

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