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Of time and baseball, the Sterling saga, and Zimmy the man

Here are some items to mull over when you have nothing better to do while waiting for the Herald to officially proclaim, “Wait until next year!” 

Slowball: Amazingly, given how long it has taken, Major League Baseball suddenly seems to recognize its biggest problem is not the National Football League, nor the Yankees, nor even the high price of mediocrity. It is the mounting tedium reducing too many games to a snail’s pace. We speak of that sheer, benumbing, and dreary “dead time” that bridges pitch to pitch to pitch of every inning every game, ad nauseam.

The official average length of a MLB tilt is now well over three hours. In the last 10 years, the average length has jumped roughly a half hour. Surprisingly the Red Sox, who’ve always featured achingly dithering characters, are not a league leader in this dubious category. That honor in the AL goes to Tampa’s Rays whose games this season are averaging a mere three hours and twenty seven minutes. The NL leader is the Dodgers at 3:22. In a lengthy lament on the problem, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci reports that he timed one recent Dodgers-Mets half inning – featuring no runs, no hits, and just three balls put into play – as lasting over 22 minutes. Unbelievable!

There are many culprits. Television. Lengthier commercial breaks.  Replays. Dilatory managerial strategies. Erudite skippers like the Rays’ Joe Maddon can tag an extra 20 minutes onto a game just by thinking too much. Showboating pitching coaches are offenders. So are showboating sluggers. Should David Ortiz really be allowed to take 37 seconds rounding the bases after smashing one out? “Minor,” you say. It’s the idea of the thing, says I. We’re talking about the game’s pace. It’s much too glacial. Catchers are among the worst offenders. Should Jose Molina be allowed to average a dozen trips to the mound to hobnob with his faltering pitchers?  The umps allow too many timeouts. Let the blokes tie their shoelaces on their own time.

Of course, the worst offenders, far and away, are the hitters, maybe not all but increasingly too many. In a painstakingly plodding A’s-Yankees tilt I recently watched, one Oakland batter stepped out for little strolls three times between two pitches and upon returning the third time he paused further to re-adjust his batting gloves while the umpire – as stoic and inert as your basic cigar store Indian – stood by in a trance, saying nothing.

This playing with the Velcro batting-glove caper is becoming the supremest of aggravations. Countless are guilty, even such otherwise highly admirable characters as Pedroia of Boston and Jeter of New York. It is Mr. Jeter’s policy to signal the pitcher with a slight head-nod when he’s finally ready to receive the next pitch. He’s lucky he didn’t play in the ‘50s and ‘60s, facing the likes of a Wynn, Bunning, Drysdale, or Gibson when the next pitch would have surely been stuck right in his ear.     

From his remarkable research, Verducci reveals that the MLB leader in “time wasted between pitches” is the young star of the Colorado Rockies, Troy Tulowitzki, who takes an average of 27.6 seconds between pitches. Astounding! He claims that in a recent game with the Orioles an Astros’ bush-leaguer (whom I’ve never heard of) took five minutes to complete a seven pitch at-bat. Absolutely crazy!

The umpires are going to have to wake up and start invoking the 12-second rule, which is clearly on the books. Umps alone can control it. They gotta toughen up. This nonsense is killing the game.

Methinks they doth protest too much:  The “they” we speak of are the NBA owners who appear to have successfully drummed the goofy owner of the L.A. Clippers out of their nice little chowder society. Recall how piously they denounced fallen buddy Donald Sterling after his racist rant. Collectively they made quite a sight scrambling for the moral high ground, and that includes the new commissioner and, especially, the old one. After all, the lodge brothers had casually tolerated Sterling in all of his well-documented flaws for fully a quarter century.  He hardly became a scoundrel overnight.

Now, in what might prove the most ludicrous irony in sport’s history,  Sterling, the much-despised, becomes the hero of the lodge brothers, their ultimate benefactor. For certain experts are already asserting he has multiplied their riches.

Here’s how it happened. Although desperately under the gun, Sterling still managed to sell his tarnished franchise to an all-too-eager corporate high-roller for nearly four times its alleged book value. Forbes, the last word on sports’ properties, had valued the Clippers at $545 million. They sold for $2 billion.  In pulling off such a coup, the Sterlings instantly and hugely jacked up the value of every other NBA team. A big-shot New York financial house is already declaring the value of the Knickerbockers to have roughly doubled to about three billion bucks, on the logical assumption the Knicks have to be worth at least 50 percent more than the Clippers. How giddy might this windfall, however tainted, leave Clan Dolan, controversial owners of the Knicks, Rangers, Madison Square Garden, etc.?
Methinks that wherever the lodge brothers hence gather they’ll be privately celebrating this guy even while publicly regarding him as loathsome. It won’t exactly be a pretty picture. But what a great country, eh?

Alabama hayride: Nick Saban, head coach of ‘Bama’s beloved Crimson Tide, has taken the state’s nutty football culture along for the ride. As a reward for his teams’ mighty gridiron achievements, the university has torn up his old contract, which yielded him $5.5 annually, and given him a new one, for about $8 million per until 2022. How many English professors might they hire for that kind of dough? Left unanswered is the even weightier question: Why did they feel compelled to reward him for winning. For $5.5 million a year, did they expect him to lose?

Zimmy:  Understand this much. All the lovely things people are now saying about Don Zimmer are absolutely true. In his Boston times in the mid-through-late ‘70s, it was fun to see baseball people from all the other towns come traipsing through Fenway and rush to embrace Zimmy and re-hash old times. In baseball, the only game that has a multi-layered sociology all its own, everybody knew him and everyone liked him. He had no enemies. It’s a mighty hard trick to turn.
Which made some of the rough treatment he was made to take in his Red Sox interlude the harder to accept, because in the end it got nasty and personal. They were tough and complex days, highly emotional. He had fully the respect of the regulars on the beat. You always knew where you stood with Zimmy. He would never knowingly mislead you. His problem was with certain fringe characters, some on his own pitching staff, who didn’t, shall we say, always play by the Marquis of Queensbury rules.

Hardest on him, though, were a couple of young, green, and ill-informed talk-show guys striving to cut their teeth in the broadcasting world on his hide. One in particular was unforgivably vicious, persecuting him for about two years non-stop and exulting, in the end, when Don finally got the boot. It was a hatchet job that Zim should not have taken as seriously as he did. He was not faultless. He was surely too stubborn for his own good. But then he was a consummate straight arrow who never could understand people who weren’t.

It was in New York with the Yankees in the sweetest of ironies that Zimmy’s most exalted baseball moments were realized and it came late in life, which made it the sweeter. He was right by Joe Torre’s side whispering in his ear on every play, advising and consenting on every wrinkle of those four championship seasons they experienced together. All who had the pleasure of knowing him were delighted for him.

Was Zimmy a great baseball man as well as a fine fellow? You better believe it, old Sport.  Put it this way: Hall of Fame-bound Joe Torre never won a crown without him.