BASEBALL NOTES: Majors play mix ‘n match with umpire crews
Brian O’Nora was sitting in the umpires’ locker room at Shea Stadium last week, talking to Wally Bell and Mark Hirschbeck about the crew’s upcoming trip to the Metrodome.
”I was telling them that it’s not like other stadiums, where you can turn your head and try to pick up a fly ball later. If you do, you’ll lose it against that roof,” the former AL ump advised his former NL co-workers.
”Now they get to tell me about the ground rules with the ivy at Wrigley Field,” he said.
With major league umpires merged – crews have been mixed and matched, all wearing MLB patches on their caps and right sleeves – these kinds of conversations have been taking place.
Among the umps and players.
”It will be difficult at first to adjust,” San Diego star Tony Gwynn said. ”There’s a big difference between what the NL and AL umpires call. I’m not going into specifics, but there’s a big difference.
”I use a lot of video, and I can tell you all about the umpires in the National League and what they call around the plate. I’ve seen some of the AL guys in interleague games, but I don’t know a lot about them. But that’s our job as hitters, to learn what their zones are.”
For years, people have talked about varying strike zones – the NL umps supposedly called a lower strike.
Part of the idea for the commissioner’s office merging the umps was to cut down on their travel schedules. Another effect might be a more consistent strike zone someday.
Gerry Davis and Rich Rieker, a pair of NL veteran umps, were at the Ballpark in Arlington for the season-opening series between Texas and the Chicago White Sox.
”The perception is that there are two different strike zones, and I don’t believe that,” Rieker said. ”You standardize that by having Gerry Davis work the plate in Arlington, and Gerry Davis work the plate at Wrigley. Rich Rieker works the plate in LA, Rich Rieker works the plate in Kansas City, that’s really how you standardize the strike zone.”
That’s fine with Atlanta catcher Javy Lopez.
”This is going to be good,” he said. ”I like it because people complain too much about our pitchers’ location. The American League umpires, that doesn’t bother them.”
With longtime AL umpire John Hirschbeck behind the plate, there were eight called strikeouts Monday when Colorado played the Braves at Turner Field.
”Some guys have a tighter strike zone, but if the ball is over the plate at the right height, that’s a strike no matter who you are,” Hirschbeck said. ”Up and down, the same thing. Some guys are a little tighter. They want that ball, in their minds, to be right on the plate. ‘Other guys say that if it nicks the corner, that’s good enough for me. That’s the only difference in the strike zone. It’s really not an American/National league thing.”
There are more subtle distinctions, too.
In the past, AL umpires were told to run into the outfield to track fly balls while NL umps usually stayed around their bases.
”We’ve now been instructed to run out there,” said longtime NL umpire Mark Hirschbeck, John’s brother.
Also, AL umpires at first and third base were taught to straddle the line to judge fair and foul balls. NL umps usually stood to the side.
Plus this little touch: AL umps bent over with their hands on their knees on the bases when a pitch came, the NL guys leaned into the play.
”This is a way to get everybody on the same page,” Bell said. ”And they can teach it one way in the minors.”
Along with an occasional short commute to Jacobs Field from his home in Ohio, there was another perk for Bell.
”I get to see Yankee Stadium,” he said. ”I’ve never been there.”
RING THAT BELL: Even though it’s only 309 feet to the right-field foul pole, Barry Bonds said he does not expect any huge benefit from new Pacific Bell Park.
”I think the new ballpark is better set for right-hand than left-hand hitters,” the San Francisco slugger said. ”If you hit it away, you can hit it off the wall. It’s better. If the shorter fence was in left field, I’d hit a lot of homers the other way.”
The right-field wall is made of brick. But Bonds said he’d prefer to deal with odd bounces out there instead of what he’ll face playing left.
”I’d rather take the caroms than the sun,” he said. ”I have 35-year-old eyes, and I have the sun the entire game. I’ve been fortunate my whole career to be in baseball stadiums where I didn’t have to deal with the sun for any length of time.
”I’m going to be forced to put my glasses down a lot in gap situations,” Bonds added. ”Those are going to be tough balls to catch. I’m going to make some mistakes in the very beginning, but I’ll adjust.”
GOING GLOBAL: With the season starting at the Tokyo Dome and baseball bidding to expand its international horizons, it seems fitting that nearly one-quarter of major leaguers were born outside the United States.
In all, 23.6 percent of players on the 25-man rosters and disabled lists on opening day came from 16 foreign countries and Puerto Rico. Last year, the total was 21.2 percent.
Those 198 players this year include 10 each on the New York Yankees, Atlanta, Florida and Montreal.
The Dominican Republic leads the list with 71, followed by Puerto Rico (33) and Venezuela (31). There are nine players from Cuba, including pitcher Michael Tejera of Florida, and three players from Aruba: Eugene Kingsale, Calvin Maduro and Sidney Ponson, all for Baltimore.
Following the Cubs-Mets series in Japan, there’s talk about trying to play regular season games in Venezuela next year, along with returning to Cuba for an exhibition. There’s also been speculation that Italy might be the site of games in the near future.
THE WRIGHT STUFF: Teresa Wright, who gave a Hall of Fame performance as Lou Gehrig’s wife in ”Pride of the Yankees,” will make a special appearance in Cooperstown, N.Y., later this month for a screening of the 1942 film.
Wright, 81, will be at the shrine on April 29. Those in attendance will also see the original scrapbook of Gehrig’s career that was kept by his wife, Eleanor.
Wright was nominated for both Best Actress (”Pride of the Yankees”) and Best Supporting Actress (”Mrs. Miniver”) in 1942. She won the supporting award.
Earlier this year, Wright was honored at the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America dinner. She was escorted to the dais by Derek Jeter, and sat between the star shortstop and Yogi Berra.
”Little did I know that ‘Pride of the Yankees’ would lead me to the New York Yankees 60 years later,” she said.