"The last dimension," wrote Roger Angell, the esteemed baseball chronicler of The New Yorker, "is time. Within the ballpark, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game. This is the unique, unchangeable feature of baseball."
Were Angell to sit in the concrete-and-wood grandstands of cozy Alden Field in Bridgeton, N.J., next month, he might rethink that assertion. As it has for the past 29 summers, this town of 19,000 will host the Bridgeton Invitational Semi-Pro Baseball Tournament, and the brand of baseball on display will bear little resemblance to Angell's leisurely game. Sixteen teams from throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic will convene on Aug. 5, all drawn by Alden Field's most distinctive feature: a clock.
The timer, perched above an old scoreboard in left centerfield, is a variation on basketball's 24-second clock, and it keeps tournament games moving at an un-Angellian pace. What began as a gimmick to lure fans to the tournament in 1967 has become the linchpin of the event. There are 20 speed-up rules governing play at Alden Field, including stipulations that the pitcher start his windup within 20 seconds of getting the ball from his catcher or an infielder; that batters get in the box within 10 seconds of the preceding play's conclusion; and that teams take only 90 seconds to change sides between innings.
"It's constant motion," says Ed Lynch, manager of the two-time defending-champion team from Rising Sun, Md., and a former Bridgeton Invitational player. "That clock, for a first-year player, is intimidating. There's none of this checking your cup 12 times before every play. That clock can get inside your head."
"The players have to get in the box, ready to hit," says chief umpire Alex DePutron, who has worked several Bridgeton Invitationals. "The pitchers have to be ready to throw. It's a pleasure." To the fan accustomed to the endless preening of .200 hitters and to lengthy television breaks between innings, the dispatch with which players at the Bridgeton Invitational move is startling. Nobody dusts off after sliding. Batters trot up to the plate.
Violations of the tournament's sacred rules are dealt with—how else?—swiftly. Whenever the timer reaches zero, the clock operator in the press box pushes a button that sets off a bell. If the violation is committed by the team at bat, a strike is called on the batter. If it is by the team in the field, a ball is called.
The rules have created some unintentionally humorous situations, such as the time Bob Gildea, player-manager of Gildea's Raiders, from Wilmington, Del., went to the mound to calm a restless hurler. "I just went out there to talk to him, to try and settle him down," Gildea recalls. "Well, I talked a little too long, and by the time I got off that mound, the poor guy had a 2-0 count against him. Some help."
Pitcher Dickie Noles, one of several ex-major-leaguers who have played in the Bridgeton Invitational, vividly recalls his introduction to the speed-up rules. "I'm in the on-deck circle when Joe Singley, the hitter in front of me, gets called out on strikes," says Noles, who plays for Gildea's squad. "He starts to argue the call, and he's a big guy, so I figure, Well, it's common courtesy, I'll let him get his two cents' worth. All of a sudden, bing! Strike one. Okay, the heck with common courtesy. I say, 'Joe, let's move it!' "
Or there was Gildea's first experience. "In my first at bat," he says, "I was late getting to the box. One strike. Then, later in the at bat, I inadvertently stepped out of the box. Two strikes. And I hadn't even thought about swinging yet." Flailing in desperation at the next offering, Gildea knocked a solo home run. At least he says he did.
Virtually nothing stops the clock. Try to imagine this Bridgetonian scenario taking place at a major league stadium: "I'm out in rightfield, and our centerfielder runs smack into the wall trying to chase down a fly," Gildea recalls. "He's lying there, his glasses are busted, his nose is all split up. Well, I go running over to him, and he's bleeding like crazy. Then all of a sudden I hear that bing! We waited to take him off between innings, so he stood in center-field, holding a rag on his nose, hoping the ball won't hit him.