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Speeding up long, slow games should be a priority

by Wayne Graczyk

The March 7 decision by Japanese baseball’s executive committee to drop the 3½-hour time limit on extra-inning games came as welcome news. We have observed the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, the subsequent tsunami and nuclear power plant problems that led to a period of setsuden (power-conservation measures).

In spite of the passing of the two-year mark, however, normalcy has not returned in some places. For example, in my city of Musashino west of Tokyo, the time-and-temperature board in front of Japan Railways Kichijoji Station remains blank.

Also, at a branch of our city office, an escalator leading from the first to second floor of the building is still shut down. Most likely, it has just not occurred to the city officials to turn on the digital board and restart the escalator.

Also, many of the fluorescent lights in the JR train carriages have never been put back.

However, noting the fact 11 of the 12 Central and Pacific League teams played double-figure numbers of tie games last season, and the average length for games is still well over three hours, NPB is making the wise move to scrap the time limit. The 12-inning restriction remains in place.

Somehow it was expected, with the time rule, games would be completed much quicker, but it works just the opposite. Knowing there is that 3½-hour stop rule, the umpires, managers, coaches and players seemed to move through the games at a more leisurely pace.

Then there were the (many) occasions when the time limit was approaching, and strategy called for stall tactics where the visiting team was actually playing for a tie or the home team fixed it so it could not lose.

You could have called it the “9:25 p.m. slowdown” when a pitcher would make eight consecutive pickoff throws to first base or a hitter suddenly got “something in his eye” or had to retreat to the on-deck circle to put more spray on his bat as the final minutes ticked away.

Fans will be happy to know that won’t be happening this season, but the question remains: How do we speed up the games?

In my judgment, a lot of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of the umpires. The crew chiefs and home plate umps need to keep the action moving. There should also be a time limit for relief pitchers to get to the mound from those secluded bullpens after the time their names are announced over the PA system.

Another strange happening often seen in Japanese games but one I have not seen very much in the majors occurs when a guy gets hurt and goes into the clubhouse for examination and treatment.

Of course all care should be given when a man is injured, but all too often it seems his leaving the field is unnecessary. Sometimes the player goes off the diamond, acting as if he is at death’s door, and the plate umpire signals to the P.A. announcer to ask the fans to wait a few minutes while the injured party gets checked out.

Everyone waits 10 or 15 minutes, after which the player comes running out, having apparently made a miraculous recovery. I am not sure what can be done about it, but this is also one of the reasons games are often held up.

One more suggestion I have would be for NPB to send a representative to each team to meet with the managers, coaches and players — and umpires — and brief them on the importance of picking up the pace of games. It is nice they put “Speed Up” signs in the dugouts, but a frequent verbal reminder would help more.

At the same time, players could offer their suggestions on the subject. After all, they are the ones on the field playing the games and, out of the almost 700-member player pool, there must be someone with an idea about how to make their work day end more quickly, so they can get home to the wife and kids.

How about a fans questionnaire?

I would bet there are some good ideas in the heads of the millions of ticket buyers who attend games each season and would like to see the action take on a quicker pace. If you have any ideas about how to make the Japanese games go faster, let me know.

In any event, NPB did the right thing in shelving that 3½-hour rule. I don’t suppose Japan Railways will ever put back every other light tube in the trains but, if we can only get that time-and-temperature board back on and start up that escalator again, we’ll be in business.

Diamond Dust: The Baseball Bullet-In would like to congratulate Samurai Japan on making it to the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic. Win or lose in San Francisco, it’s another good WBC tournament for the team and country that always threatens to stay out of the competition until the last minute.

Also congratulations to Roberto “Chico” Barbon on his 80th birthday on Wednesday. Chico was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1933 and was just 22 when he joined the Hankyu Braves as a shortstop in 1955. The speedster led the Pacific League in stolen bases three times.

After playing 10 years with the Braves and a season with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Barbon was unable to return to his country because of the political situation and settled in the Kansai area.

He became fluent in the Japanese language and served as a coach and interpreter with Hankyu. He still hangs around Kobe’s Hotto Motto Stadium when the Orix Buffaloes play there and remains one of the more interesting characters in Japanese baseball history.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com