Steve Palermo was the best umpire in the American League before he got shot in the back while trying to help a couple of waitresses who were being robbed. But even Stevie, no matter how good he was on balls and strikes, never made a contribution to baseball as important as the one he’s making now. And he knows it. That’s the part that’s really nice.
He needs the game badly. But the game needs him - and his campaign to speed up the pace of play - just as much.
“People who don’t really understand the sport act as if this issue is somewhere far down the line among baseball’s problems. But they’re wrong,” said Palermo. “I tell them that, obviously, settling the labor dispute is No. 1. But improving the pace of the game is No. 1-A. Not No. 2, but No. 1-A.”
Palermo’s voice rings with conviction and enthusiasm for his task at a time when baseball is losing support in every corner. ABC and NBC have decided to drop their coverage at the end of this season, disappointed with revenues. Fan apathy at the gate and weak local and cable TV ratings haven’t helped, either.
“We’ve sold off a lot of this game to TV,” said Palermo. “We need to get some of it back. … If we improve the rhythm and pace of play, if it’s a better game and millions more people want to watch it, won’t that be better for TV, even if there is less time between innings for commercials?”
So Palermo is starting to understand that his physical rehabilitation from paralysis, though incomplete, has brought him to the point where he can become baseball’s traveling revivalist preacher. Palermo wants to pound his fist on the pulpit until he, and all those who agree with his fight, can take baseball back to where it was when they fell in love with it.
Less than 20 years ago, the average baseball game took less than 2 1/2 hours. The sport wasn’t slow. It was measured, graceful, infinitely individual.
When Palermo was breaking into his profession, the games were sometimes so fast - maybe 1:56 with Scott McGregor pitching - you wanted to call the players back on the field to go a couple more innings. But when a game did take 3:15, it was usually such a barnburner - 7-6 in 11 innings - you wouldn’t have wanted it a single pitch shorter.
“We’re losing control of this game. It’s just drifted. Sometimes it makes me want to vomit,” says Palermo of the sport’s current average time of 3 hours.
“On average we’re taking more than 2 minutes and 30 seconds between each half inning” (i.e., more than 45 minutes of dead time per game), he said. “That’s ridiculous. We need to remember that (baseball) is like a concert that has to be orchestrated.
“Can you imagine the David Letterman show coming out of a commercial break, and Dave’s over talking to Paul Shaffer with the band? Then he says, “Oh, we’re back.’ Then he puts out his cigar, fixes his mike, walks all the way across the set and sits down before he says, ‘Our next guest is Cindy Crawford.’ You’d say, ‘What is this, a joke? Is he messing around?’
“But that’s what we do in baseball 18 times a game. We aren’t ready to go.”
Hard as it is to believe, baseball actually wants to solve this basic problem. Earlier this month, Palermo presented his report and recommendations at the summer owners’ meeting. To the utter amazement of the wise, the cynical and the merely observant, the owners voted unanimously to do something right and adopt his plan.
Given time to reflect, the owners may backslide. But, for now, there’s hope. Starting after the All-Star Game (July 11), the time between innings will be reduced to 2 minutes from its current average of 2 1/2. That should cut 7 or 8 minutes out of every major-league game immediately. Next season, the time between innings will be 1:45. Voila, another 5 minutes of needless boredom just evaporated.
Next season, another radical Palermo suggestion will be adopted: call the strike zone the way it is written in the rule book. Bring back the high strike. Even Palermo admits this won’t make an enormous difference. Still, more strikes means fewer walks and more action. That’s the theory.
Palermo’s final and most important idea is also the most difficult to implement. “The biggest problem,” he said, after timing countless games, “is hitters wandering out of the batter’s box after almost every pitch. …
“I’ve asked a lot of hitters, ‘Why do you get out of the box anyway?’ They say, ‘Well-em-er-gee, Steve, I guess it’s just a habit.’ There’s no logic, rhyme or reason to it.”
Under the Palermo Rule, the batter must keep one foot in the batter’s box between pitches.
“This is going to be an added responsibility for umpires. I understand that,” said Palermo. “But they’ve always been the watchdogs of the sport. The umpire is the keeper of the game.” Palermo expects umpires to say “Strike” when a pitcher delivers the ball while a batter dawdles unduly. “For a year or so, my name will be used in vain. But the problem will get fixed. …
“It will be just like when the balk rule was enforced more strictly after Whitey Herzog complained during the ‘87 World Series that Bert Blyleven wasn’t coming to a complete stop in his delivery before throwing home. In ‘88, there was a (flap) about all the balks that were called. Well, how much do you hear about balks now? You don’t hear anything. Everybody got retrained. We put a policeman at the stop sign. Nobody rolls through the stop sign anymore.”
Palermo assumes that retraining batters will save 10 minutes or more per game. If you watch how much time hitters waste in one inning, you may agree with Palermo. You’ll probably also want to scream.
“This is a great challenge,” says Palermo of re-educating major leaguers on the glory of their game when it’s played at its natural pace. “Baseball needs to be fixed. But it doesn’t need to be torn down and rebuilt.
“Think of a widower living in a house that gradually needs more attention. The wood starts to weather. The foundation sags. The roof leaks. You need to do some caulking. But there’s nothing basically wrong. It’s still a beautiful, historic house that anybody would love to live in. It just needs repairs.”
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