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High expectations

Umpires practice calling higher strike zone

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Posted: Wednesday January 24, 2001 9:49 PM
Updated: Friday January 26, 2001 1:42 AM

  Jerry Meals All 68 major league umpires are in Arizona this week for strike zone reprogramming. AP

CHANDLER, Ariz. (AP) -- Salaries aren't the only thing going up in baseball.

Major league baseball officials insist the strike zone will be rising, too.

In what is believed to be the first session of its kind, all 68 major league umpires took turns Wednesday in the Arizona sunshine calling strikes on pitches that for years have been considered above the strike zone.

San Francisco minor leaguers stood at bat, wearing strips of white tape across their chest to show the umpires where the rule book says the strike zone is, three baseballs -- or nine inches -- above the belt.

For years, anything above the belt has been considered a ball. But the higher zone will be enforced in the coming season, the umpires said.

"What you see right here now, that's the way it's going to be. Make no mistake about it," said Al Clark, a big-league umpire for 25 years.

Sandy Alderson, vice president for baseball operations in the commissioner's office, oversaw the session, believed to be the first in which all big league umps were gathered in the same location.

The idea is simply to enforce the rules as written, Alderson said.

"I think the conventional wisdom is it will take some offense out and it will speed up the game a little bit," he said, "but I'm not really concerned about those elements as much as I am getting us back to more of an adherence of the rules."

Pitching machines were set to make sure the ball would fly in above the belt to give the umps some practice.

Wednesday's meeting was evidence that baseball means business this time.

"It's a different approach from just sending out a memo and expecting it to happen," Alderson said.

When the commissioner's office took charge of overseeing umpires from both leagues, it pledged to spend money to make sure the games were called consistently and by the rules.

The plan to enforce a bigger strike zone was introduced to umpire crew chiefs and to skeptical managers at baseball's winter meetings in December.

After Wednesday's demonstration and practice session, the umpires went back into a closed session to discuss what needs to be done to be ready for the change on opening day.

"We already have a couple of things planned," Alderson said. "We're going to send a team of four or five staff and umpires around to meet with managers and coaches just after spring training opens for pitchers and catchers to explain everything to them and maybe have a demonstration."

Umpires also will be assigned to each club a few days before spring training games begin to work batting practice and intersquad games.

"I think the umpires are going to be more or less ready to go by the time we get to the beginning of the season," Alderson said, "and my guess is that hitters will be also -- except that when we get in the heat of battle, their reaction level will be a little more intense."

To make sure the umpires don't backslide into old habits, the commissioner's office plans to install pitch track machines, accurate within a half-inch, in five or six ballparks.

Clark said the hitters had better realize in spring training that the higher strike zone will be a reality, and begin practicing accordingly.

"You see 68 umpires here, and 68 umpires are on the same page," he said. "If they're going to fight us, they're fighting city hall."

Related information
From SI: Inside Baseball
Spring training reporting dates
2001 Spring Training Schedule's Mike Berardino: By the (rule) book
Fantasy Central: Strike zone's spirit now a higher calling
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