Twenty-five years ago, Ted Williams, retired a year, and Mike Roarke, then a Detroit Tiger catcher and now the pitching coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, were discussing the strike zone. They were interrupted by their companion, who just so happened to be a blind judge.
"What is the big deal?" asked the judge. "The strike zone is a vertical rectangle 17 inches wide extending from the armpits to the top of the batter's knees."
"Don't take offense, your highness," said Williams. "But that's an ideal set forth in the rule book. Baseball isn't played with ideals. The strike zone is whatever that day's umpire says it is. So if a hitter is smart, he knows that particular umpire as well as he knows the opposing pitcher."
"I see," replied the judge. "That means that the strike zone is no different than a court of law."
The strike zone determines a great deal more than balls and strikes. It determines what's hit or isn't hit, who's called out and who isn't. It determines who's on the defensive and who's on the offensive. "Baseball is a game of counts," says Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale. "You win at 1 and 2, lose at 2 and 1, and the difference between 1 and 2 and 2 and 1 is often a fraction of an inch in one mind's eye." The strike zone is the very heartbeat of a game.
The rule book reads, as the judge stated, that the strike zone is the width of the plate and the distance between the batter's armpits and his knees. "The rule book doesn't really have any touch with reality," says Marty Springstead, a long-respected umpire who's now the American League's chief supervisor of umpires. "There are no directives, no set standards." National League supervisor Ed Vargo says, "I can't begin to tell you what the strike zone really is. It comes down to individuals, instinct and common sense."
"There are 52 different strike zones because there are 52 umpires," says American League umpire Joe Brinkman, who runs one of the two schools that train young umpires for organized baseball. "From the time they come to our school, through the umpire development program and right on up to the big leagues, no one ever defines the strike zone to an umpire."
"We don't need a specific definition," says the AL's Richie Garcia. "We know what the strike zone is. Managers know what it is. So do hitters and pitchers."
All well and good, but the strike zone is clearly not what the rule book says it is—and what most of us are taught it is. Today's strike zone basically runs vertically from the belt buckle to the bottom of the knees and horizontally maybe a shade or two outside of the plate. If some latter-day Rip van Winkle fell asleep in front of his TV set 20 years ago watching Nolan Ryan throw a high heater for a called strike past Pete Rose, he would be surprised upon waking up in front of the set today to find that the same pitch thrown by Ryan to Rose is now called a ball—without argument. Even those of you who haven't been asleep for 20 years might well ask, What happened? Why isn't that perfectly good, rib-high pitch a strike? Does the centerfield camera lie?
Hank Soar, a former umpire who's now an assistant supervisor in the American League, says, "I wonder if Early Wynn would be in the Hall of Fame if the strike zone had been like this when he pitched. I wonder how Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Virgil Trucks or Jim Palmer would have been affected. What would have happened to Don Larsen's perfect game? That pitch Dale Mitchell took for a called third strike is a ball today."