|

NPB trying to speed up play in effort to shorten games

by Wayne Graczyk

Japanese baseball has been known for long, drawn-out games, and it is rare when you see a final score accomplished in less than three hours of play.

A running joke’s punch line among foreign players chatting with each other prior to a game is, “Let’s see if we can keep it under 3 1/2 tonight.”

Usually they cannot.

But there is finally a campaign under way to reduce the playing time of games by six percent, and it is about time something is being done — or, at least, they are trying — to speed up the play.

Several of Japan’s ballparks have installed a timer on the scoreboard to monitor how long it takes for the action to resume after the between-inning breaks when the teams change sides, and for relievers to get to the mound when a mid-inning pitching change takes place.

The delay in pitchers coming in from the bullpen has been one of the major factors contributing to lengthy contests, and it is especially bad in domed stadiums where the bullpens are out of sight.

The warmup areas in Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium and at Seibu Dome in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, are on the field, so the umpires can see if a reliever is dilly-dallying and will tell him to hurry up and get his butt to the mound.

However, the ‘pens in the other domed stadiums cannot be seen from the field, and the umps are usually helpless to do anything.

It used to be a pitching coach would go to the mound and gather with the about-to-be-departing pitcher, the catcher, four infielders, maybe an interpreter, and the P.A. announcer would call out the name of the new hurler.

Then the seven or eight guys on the hill — and 45,000 fans — would be waiting, waiting, waiting, wondering what is keeping him.

I can recall one time a few years ago when a pitcher named Hayato Nakamura was with the Yomiuri Giants, and he took a full four minutes from the time his name was called until he trotted out of the dugout and headed for the rubber and rosin bag to start warming up.

Besides the scoreboard countdown clock, umpires seem to have a better sense to move the game along, and signs have been posted on the walls in the dugouts to remind players, coaches and managers of the efforts to shorten game times.

“Speed up! Let’s cut the game time by six percent,” is the basic message.

The Yomiuri Giants and Chunichi Dragons got the point in their April 1 meeting at Tokyo, and it was not an April Fool’s gag. The Central League rivals played an interesting, hard-fought nine innings in 2 hours and 46 minutes; not too long and not too short.

They kept it under three hours the next night as well, completing the April 2 game in 2:49.

But, alas, on the third night of their three-game series, it took 3 hours, 17 minutes to get to the final out.

Well, as Meat Loaf would say, two out of three ain’t bad. Hopefully, we’ll see more games completed in less than three hours, and baseball will be made even more enjoyable for everyone involved.

* * * * *

Around the ballparks: I mentioned a few weeks ago about the new look at Jingu Stadium, and Seibu Dome in Tokorozawa has also been fitted with a new turf, an improved scoreboard and expanded bullpen area, part of which will be converted into field seats to be installed for the 2009 season.

At Tokyo Dome, female fans especially will be happy to hear of a change this season: expanded women’s restroom facilities.

They’ve remodeled the bathrooms and converted some of the men’s rooms to ladies’ rooms, no doubt responding to complaints from girls about long lines at crowded games.

This may prove difficult for TV and radio announcers, who need to jump out of the broadcasting booths to relieve themselves between innings or during pitching changes, especially during the “Speed up!” campaign.

Another modification at the Big Egg this year is the replacement of the automobile ad above the bleachers in left-center field.

This is one of the nine prominent billboards said to cost the advertiser ¥300 million per season; the ones that offer a lump of cash and/or the sponsor’s prize to a batter who hits the sign with a tape-measure home run.

For years, Nissan Motors bought the space between the Kirin Beer and Meiji Confectionary ads, and many hitters, especially foreign players, took aim at the board in hopes of winning a new car. Now the Nissan reference is gone, and that space has been taken by JR East.

In recent seasons, foreign sluggers who have won items include Alex Ramirez, then with the Yakult Swallows, whose long ball caromed off the Kirin Breweries display, and Tyrone Woods of the Chunichi Dragons, who dented the Meiji sign.

Ramirez was awarded a year’s supply of beer, while Woods got the equivalent amount of ice cream. Each man was presented with 365 coupons redeemable for the products.

Another new sign promotes Jinro sake, but it’s doubtful if any hitter will win a year’s supply of rice liquor. Jinro’s ad is just to the left of the scoreboard, requiring a Herculean blast to reach it.

* * * * *

Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com