BALKS AND STRIKES
Both leagues have tried to get umpires to enforce the balk rule more vigorously this spring, and the change has been rough on some pitchers. Texas Rangers knuckleballer Charlie Hough got nailed nine times in an exhibition game against the Toronto Blue Jays. And Boston's Dennis Lamp got called for a balk a few days later with Joe Oliver of the Cincinnati Reds on third and the score tied 2-2. The resulting run ended up winning the game.
Some teams, especially those who rely heavily on speed, welcome the new policy. "Pitchers are supposed to come to a stop, but in the World Series Bert Blyleven balked 19 times and they wouldn't do anything about it," says St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog. "If the rule is there, enforce it." But other teams are less enthusiastic. "If they want Vince Coleman to steal 180 bases, they've come up with a way for him to do it," says Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Miller.
As far as the umpires are concerned, nothing much has really changed. "The league wants us to make sure that pitchers come to a complete stop in their stretch," says American League ump Richie Garcia. "Basically the rule has been there. They just added the word 'discernible' to 'stop,' and clarified that pitchers are no longer allowed to jump and make their spin moves to first base."
Forcing pitchers to stop will probably hurt base stealers like Carlton Fisk and Marty Barrett, who rely more on guile than speed. And it will probably have more impact on the American League because, according to Miller, "balks haven't been called there for years."
The umpires are also supposed to lower the strike zone, a change in the rules that might end up raising it instead. "The rule used to say that the strike zone is from the knees to the armpits," says one American League ump, "but most of us call it from the knees to the belt. Now they want us to call it from the knees to halfway between the belt and the armpits."
If the umpires abide by the new rule, high-throwing fastballers like Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan will benefit. Most batters call themselves high-ball hitters, but what they usually mean by high pitches are breaking balls, not fastballs. Indeed, Red Sox hitting coach Walter Hriniak estimates that "95 percent of the best hitters today are low-ball hitters."
THE WEIRDEST AT BAT
Jose Nunez, a righthanded pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays who had never batted in the pros before, stepped in against the Phillies' Kevin Gross in an exhibition game in Clearwater, Fla. Before Gross could throw a pitch, the third base ump motioned for Nunez to take off his warmup jacket. Then Nunez returned to the lefthanded-batter's box and was told by plate ump Dave Pallone that he was wearing a righty's helmet—the earflap covered his left ear rather than his right, which faced the pitcher. So Nunez turned the helmet around on his head and wore it catcher-style. No, no, said Pallone, get a lefty's helmet. No, no, said Nunez, who moved across the plate to bat righthanded.
When Gross began his delivery he saw Nunez bent over the plate, looking back into catcher Lance Parrish's glove.