"You Gotta Be Kidding!"
by Mickey Charles CEO, The Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) --
Baseball is being played these days without a strike zone. That, in and of itself, is an amazing commentary on the game. The box portrayed on the television screen by ESPN is seemingly accurate except that it does not allow for the point at which the ball actually crosses the plate and drops to within one inch of the ground. Also, of great interest to those of us that actually are concerned with the deterioration process, is the fact that the cameras above the plate have been relegated to the storage facilities at every ballpark and commentators are once more clinging to "just missed [caught] the corner" when, in fact, the ball was evidently this side of the opposite batter's box.
|Hideki Matsui of the Yankees almost swings at a pitch that was technically a strike at the knees, but unlikely to be called a strike by many MLB umpires. Historically, the strike zone has varied.|
There is no rhyme or reason, no logic, a total absence of motivation and lack of a grand plan to employ the directionless and haphazard methodology (presuming there is one) of differentiating between balls and strikes. This sporadic, aimless and errant manner of determining what qualifies as a strike has hitters flailing at everything that comes their way. It is, basically, turning a game of judicious decision making, meticulous selection and exacting accuracy into one full of unknowns and guesswork.
It all began in 1887 when a strike was defined as a pitch that passes over home plate not lower than the batsman's knee, or higher than his shoulders. Sounds good to me. Given that the shoulders are above the letters but represent the space, for most, where the swing process originates, this would seem to work well. It did for about 63 years.
Then, in 1950, probably under the influence of a Right Guard endorsement at some of the ball parks, it was changed to the area between the batter's armpits and the top of his knees when he assumes his natural stance. That, of course, meant defining a natural stance, as opposed to crouching down in an effort to shorten the strike zone.
Are you watching the genius that unfolded?
In 1963, the strike zone was expanded to the top of the batter's shoulders down to his knees, again, when assuming his natural stance. Now, unless I am mistaken, physiologically, the tops of one's shoulders are just about where your chin is. Therefore, any pitch thrown as high as the neck from 1963 to 1969 was a strike. Those, as you may have guessed, were incredibly "fun" years for hitters and even more so for the pitchers who had a strike zone about as big as the state of Texas. The ball had to be over the head of the batter or into the dirt if they wanted to start the process of a base on balls.
Then, in 1969, some degree of reason seemed to prevail. The strike zone was redone again, occurring, at this point, more often than Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears are taking men to the altar or, conversely, leaving them there as they change their minds about their presumed matrimonial plans. Back to the armpits and the top of the knee in the now infamous, or famous, natural stance position but, this time, fixed when he swings at the ball. Crouching was not anticipated at that moment, the strike zone was appropriately narrowed and it seemed that a pragmatic and well-argued definition had been achieved.
Logic does not have a very long life span within professional sports, most notably baseball. It comes and goes faster than the hurricanes that have pelted the Caribbean and some of our southern brethren, moving up north recently to show that they play no favorites as they caused flooding situations and wreaked northern havoc as well. Consequently, in 1988 - you are following this, right (?) - the strike zone's upper limit became a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants. Hip huggers aside, I would place that at about the letters since umpires were not seen, to the best of my knowledge, going out and measuring each player individually as he came to bat. The lower level was the top of the knees, something that always fascinated me since one's knees are covered and not all knees are created equally. Remember, not the knees, but the top of the knees.
The item about the stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball remained.
In 1996, for reasons unknown to anyone but umpires and front office personnel at Major League Baseball, the strike zone was expanded on the lower end, moving from the top of the knees to the bottom of the knees...the still unseen anatomy of the player. Technically, however, baseball umpires have been told to use the "hollow" beneath the knee cap as the guide line for a strike. Put another way, anything thrown above the ankle area is now a strike. For all pitchers? Of course not. All pitchers are not created equally. For all batters? Please.
As for the area over the plate there is an allowable perimeter whose range extends anywhere from six-to-eight inches in either direction...sometimes. That is unwritten but very active.
The true bottom line is that the strike zone is different for every umpire, pitcher and batter. It has the consistency of political ratings. The fans know it, as do the umpires, players and MLB. The commentators know it and, still, "just missed" or "just caught" has become an essential part of the game's description as a protective device of sorts. Those with practiced eyes, with discerning capabilities, the ones being paid tens of millions of dollars to play the game as it was intended, as the rules are thought to dictate, do not have a clue, absent a steady and dependable methodology, of discerning a strike from a ball.
Clouding the issue with close pennant races, with rivalries like the Yankees and Boston, the clamor and controlled chaos of the playoffs and World Series, adulation for success and box scores overflowing with statistics that reflect the true prowess of the athletes contending in this madness propagated by the umpires will not hide the contradictory nature of it all, the mercurial madness facing each batter as he approaches his turn at bat, the reasonless and unstable perceptibility of distinguishing a strike from a ball.
There is coherence and consistency in our very being, a certain harmony of things that ought to occur in sports. First, second and third bases are where they always are and you have to get to each, as well as to home plate. In every park, the pitcher's mound remains the same distance from home plate...as does the footage between bases. Outfield distances vary but they are the same in every park for every game played there. Foul lines are not moved. There are three strikes and four balls. Three outs to an inning. At least one run more than the opposition and you win.
Why change the strike zone from pitch to pitch, batter to batter, situation to situation and umpire to umpire (solidity and congruity are not options)? Does baseball care as they watch the turnstiles and TV revenue? Have they ever cared? You gotta be kidding!