So I’m talking to Frank Robinson on the phone, talking to him about his new position in baseball, talking to him about his plans to speed up the game.
And suddenly, it hits me:
Haven’t I had this conversation before?
In fact, I have — just after the 2000 World Series, during Robinson’s first tenure as a vice president of baseball operations.
Yes, almost 10 years ago.
Apple has produced the iPod, the iPhone and iPad since my initial talk with Robinson, but baseball still has not figured out how to enforce its pace-of-game rules.
Through the wonders of Lexis-Nexis, I find my original column on the topic for The Sporting News, which included this timeless quote from commissioner Bud Selig:
“Without a doubt, this is a very high-priority thing. All we need to do is enforce the rules on the books now. We frankly need to make sure we address the problem and solve it, and quit talking about it.”
The column was dated Oct. 30, 2000.
Robinson, who will work under John McHale, the interim executive VP of major-league operations, mentions umpires and pace-of-game concerns as the “hot items” on his list of priorities.
However, he is not yet ready to talk about umpires.
“I have a special message I want to convey to them,” Robinson says. “I want them to hear it from me first. And I want to hear what they have to say. I’m not just going to talk. I want to listen also, that’s the key thing.”
The perception around the game is that Robinson will crack down on umpires the way Sandy Alderson did before his departure in 2005. But a high-ranking source within the commissioner’s office said that just the opposite is true: Robinson, working under John McHale, interim executive of VP of Major League operations, will try to improve communication with the umps, the source said.
We shall see.
Much as the umpiring needs to be addressed, I eagerly await Robinson’s latest attempt to scale baseball’s Mt. Olympus and snap the serial pace-of-game offenders — namely, the Yankees and Red Sox — to attention.
I doubt most fans care if a game lasts 3 hours, 15 minutes or 2:55, as long as their team wins. But it did not escape the notice of the commissioner’s office that the Red Sox’s 2-0 victory over the Dodgers on Sunday night lasted 3:09.
“The tough thing is getting the players and managers to buy into it,” Robinson says. “A lot of them don’t think it’s that important to get games finished up in a reasonable amount of time.”
“We’re not going to ask our hitters to change their approach to speed the game up,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters earlier this season. “We’re trying to win games, not see how quickly we can play.”
Red Sox manager Terry Francona, another noted heretic, was not as direct as Girardi, but told Dan Patrick in a radio interview, “I don’t think people mind. Seems like a lot of people are watching.”
The Red Sox’s average time of game is a league-high 3:07. The Yankees are next at 3:06, followed by the bad-pitch, good-hit Brewers at 3:02. No other team is averaging more than three hours, though the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Mets are close.
“All we’re asking is for teams to try to get games under three hours,” Robinson says. “There are five or six teams that are not under three hours. If we could get them to cut five or 10 minutes off the pace of game, we wouldn’t have any problems. The other 24-25 teams are in great shape.”
Uh, make that the other 28, after you-know-who.
Earlier this season, umpire Joe West described the Yankees-Red Sox epics as “pathetic and embarrassing,” saying the teams took “too long to play.”
While Robinson did not necessarily agree with West’s public outburst or choice of words, he says, “Joe was only trying to do what we asked the umpires to do. He got frustrated by it.”
So, what’s the next step?
“We’re going to have to make our penalties stronger,” Robinson says. “It doesn’t have to be only pitchers, managers and coaches. The penalties have to reach to the top — to the clubs. If you had a dime for every bit of paperwork we sent out on this, you’d be on a beach somewhere, not worrying about a thing.”
Is Robinson talking about fining teams?
“Nothing else,” Robinson says. “I can’t take draft choices away from ‘em. I know the Washington Nationals wouldn’t want to give up their last two draft choices. It would be fines that we’re talking about.
“We’re not talking about something where if you don’t do it one game, you’re fined. We’re talking about a process, sending a memo: ‘You’ve been lax. You’ve got to pick it up. This is a warning.’ There probably would be one more (warning) before we get to the fine position. I don’t think that’s being too strict.”
I try not to laugh, I really do.
“Frank,” I say, “the Yankees aren’t going to blink.”
“I don’t think the Yankees will blink at anything,” Robinson agrees, adding, “I don’t want to just single them out.”
Of course not.
“We cover this in spring training,” Robinson says. “We cover it early in the year, follow it up with paperwork. But we’re not able to get it working. It’s discouraging. It’s not all that difficult. All we’re trying to do is move the game along and cut out the dead time.
“Baseball is not played by a clock. We don’t want it played by a clock. But we don’t want players dictating the game simply by moseying around.”
It’s déjà vu all over again.
I’ll be sure to check back with Robinson in 10 years.