Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Independent baseball league starts using new rules

One player deems Atlantic League's emphasis on speed 'silly'

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YORK, Pa. -- The independent Atlantic League took a step into unmarked territory Friday when it started playing under a new set of rules designed to speed up the pace of play.

While the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs' 2-1 victory over the York Revolution took 25 minutes less than the league average, there is no consensus among players, coaches and executives on whether the rules will be good for the league.

"All of the stuff they're proposing seemed kind of silly," said York right-handed pitcher Beau Vaughan. "It seemed very high-school."

The league announced on July 17 it would implement six rules including:

-- Automatic intentional walks.

-- Reduced number of warm-up pitches.

-- Designating pinch runners for catchers when they reach base to allow them to put on their equipment.

-- The use of a limited number of time outs for visits to the mound to talk to the pitcher.

-- Requiring umpires to enforce the current rule book more strictly.

The rules were drafted by a pace-of-play committee made up of former major-league players and executives. Although Major League Baseball has no affiliation with the Atlantic League, MLB is also concerned about time of game and could consider adopting some of the rules in the future.

Prior to the rule changes, the average length of games in the Atlantic League was two hours, 59 minutes. The league aims to cut that by about 15 minutes, said executive director Joe Klein.

Although it has only been two weeks since the Atlantic League announced the rule changes, the use of a substitute runner for the catcher has already been postponed. Teams and players expressed concerns about the rule, league president Rick White said. Revolution manager Mark Mason said he worried the rule would be counterproductive. He envisioned scenarios where speedy pinch runners would cause the pitcher to spend more time trying to pick off the runner and slow the at-bat.

"We're organic," White said. "We don't want anybody to think that we have all the answers."

Given that the majority of the rules revolve around stricter enforcement of pre-existing measures, White said, "tempo, pace of play, moving things along, however you want to state the issue, is largely going to rely upon the alacrity and the disposition of the umpire."

Because of this power dynamic, Mason is concerned about the consistency of officiating. "Just like a strike zone is different every game, the way (an umpire) enforces those other five rules could be different, too," said Mason.

Vaughan said the players were not consulted when the league was brainstorming ways to shorten games and says this omission made him and his teammates feel slighted.

York outfielder Eric Patterson had a similar reaction to Vaughan. Patterson was irked that the league implemented the rules in the middle of the season. "When you start having rules like courtesy runners," he said, "it takes away from the league and the credibility of the league."

On the other hand, everyone in the Atlantic League, fans and players included, seems to want a shorter game. York's players, however, doubt that the new rules will substantially change the length of games.

"If (the league) can come up with rules that are going to take a three-hour game and make it two hours, I'm all for it," said Patterson. "But if you're going to try to make drastic rule changes to speed up the game by three, four, five, six minutes, what's the point?"

York outfielder Sean Smith explains baseball is too unpredictable to be constrained by a time limit or strict rules. "It is a game of human error and it takes time," he said.

Despite their initial disgruntled response, the players realize the rule changes are out of their hands.

"At the end of the day," says Smith, "we're here to win and to play ball."

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2014 B11

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