By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
If you’ve watched some playoff baseball lately, you probably have noticed how the games tend to go on and on. I’m not sure anyone wants to see or play in a nine-inning game that lasts more than four hours, no matter how good the game is. The general consensus is that there are too many walks, too many strikeouts, too many long reviews, and too many home runs (as opposed to other hits).
Then again, if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem. And this summer, I was part of the solution … or at least a small part of it.
I worked as the Field Time Coordinator for the Buffalo Bisons this past summer. With the World Series now taking place, it’s a good time to review what I did. Let me start by saying it was the best summer job ever. Paid to watch baseball? I’m in.
Not quite done
When I retired from The Buffalo News, I had asked the Bisons if there was a part-time job that I might be qualified to do. They didn’t need a backup official scorer – Kevin Lester is the Cal Ripken of that position, rarely missing a game – but they did need another Field Timing Coordinator. Few people want to work 10 straight games in a homestand, and vacations do come up during the season, so spares are welcome.
You may have noticed that clocks were placed around the former Coca-Cola Field the last few years. One was placed by each of the dugouts, and a third was on the center-field wall. It’s an attempt to speed up the game a bit. I had tried to follow the rules when I was a mere fan, so I was at least familiar with the concept. I agreed to take the job.
Shortly before the start of the season, I received several pages of instruction about the work of the FTC, going through the basic rules and reviewing possible issues that might come up during the season. The International League also had a two-hour conference call among the FTCs and the league president, Randy Mobley, to discuss the job. One point that came up in discussions that I didn’t realize – any on-field promotions by the home team (race around the bases, baseball toss, etc.) must take place while the home team is warming up on the field.
Here are the instructions in a nutshell:
If there is no one on base, pitchers get 15 seconds from the time they catch the ball until the time they start their delivery. Otherwise, it’s a ball. If there is someone on base, pitchers have 20 seconds from the time they catch the ball until they move into the set position. Once reaching that full stop, they can wait indefinitely before actually throwing the ball. Batters can be awarded a strike if they aren’t ready for a pitch with seven seconds remaining on the timer, or if they leave the batter’s box without permission and delay play. The teams get 30 seconds between batters in the middle of an inning, and 2 minutes, 25 seconds between half-innings to get organized to start again. (For the record, that last break is the time for me to take care of calls by nature.)
By the way, if a ball is replaced for some reason – usually because of a foul ball or a pitch in the dirt – the clock is turned off for the next pitch. If the umpire calls time at the end of a play, the clock goes off as well. This usually happens when it’s a complicated play, where fielders are running around chasing baseballs or something. It takes more than 30 seconds to re-set the lineup.
Two other points – mound visits are supposed to last 30 seconds after the coach or manager crosses the foul line. If a pitching change is ordered, the clock counts down from 2:25 once the relief pitcher crosses the foul line. I had visions of the new pitcher walking along the foul line without crossing it to drag things out, but that never happened.
Reporting for duty
Having learned the rules, it was time to get to work. The workday actually started a little more than an hour before gametime. The timer was set to 60 minutes, and started exactly one hour before the game’s first pitch. There is a timeline of events that take place during that hour, and this ensures that the game starts right on time. As for my job during that hour before the game, well, it was when I ate and when I reminded Lester – an avid Yankees fan – about the current standings in the American League East. It was a nice summer for Red Sox fans in that sense.
The FTC’s job is not a particularly difficult one, as the game falls into a rhythm rather quickly. But it is an odd way to watch a game. My attention was locked into what was happening on the field, particularly when it came to the umpire and pitcher. Little else mattered; I barely had time to second-guess Lester’s scoring decisions, although I offered opinions at times. The umpire had the right to wave off the pitch clock as he saw fit, or order the time to be recycled to the start. If you see the ump wave over his head or make a circular motion with his hand, that’s why.
I need to admit one point: I never had a perfect, error-free game. I’m not sure they are even possible, because there are so many actions in a typical game. Every once in a while, I didn’t notice that a relief pitcher was coming into the game between innings, meaning that the timer should have been started when he crossed the foul line and not when the third out of the previous half-inning was made. Sometimes I hit the wrong pre-set button on the control board, forcing me to turn off the timer when I made a mistake. A few times I forgot to start the timer between innings as I dashed off to some important destination, like the bathroom. I treated it like fielding percentage, with a .982 number ranking as more than satisfactory.
And if you are curious, I was paid by the hour and not by the game. That made it difficult to figure out if I wanted games to stretch out to 14 innings to earn extra dollars, or if I wanted them over quickly so I could go home. As long as the games moved along, though, I eventually found that I didn’t mind staying put at the office.
Once the game ended, I still had a little work to do. The International League asks FTCs to fill out a report on how the game proceeded from their perspective. The form includes a list of all violations, if any, with circumstances; my name; the home plate umpire’s name; the number of mound visits by each team (that was the MV on the big scoreboard in center field that no one in the stands understood), etc. It usually took a couple of minutes to fill out the form and email it in, but more time was tacked on when there was a violation.
Caught in the act
The most common question about the job from fans is, how many violations are called? I worked a bit more than a dozen games, and I had two or three. The first one was the most dramatic.
Lehigh Valley jumped out to a big 7-3 lead over the Bisons, but Buffalo was rallying in the eighth inning. The Herd had filled the bases when Lehigh Valley called for its closer, ex-Bison Pedro Beato, to get out of the jam. To add to the drama, Danny Jansen – Buffalo’s best hitter – was the tying run at the plate.
Beato took his time on his first three pitches, coming close to the 20-second limit. On the next pitch, though, he clearly took more than 20 seconds … and was called for it by the umpire. A 2-1 count suddenly became 3-1, which is a more serious situation for the pitcher. Beato was obviously enraged by the call, and so was his manager. Someone in the press box asked me, “Are you sure about that one, Budd?” I said I was. Jansen flied out to left to end the threat, but the IronPigs skipper still had several words for the umpire on his way out to the coach’s box.
Does the timing system work? A little. One time I was talking to someone from another minor league team, and told him about my job with the Bisons. He said, “You are saving about four minutes from the lives of every fan in attendance.” There are worse legacies, I guess. Certainly the minor leaguers have picked up the rhythm of the new rules, and don’t seem to be having much of a problem adjusting to it. The length of games is still too long, but other factors are more responsible for that. I would guess that this minors’ approach will be adopted by the majors in the near future.
In the meantime, it’s fun to be working at a baseball park in the summer. I’ve got the best view possible from my “office” in the press box, second level right behind home plate. And some nights when my work shift is over, I’m greeted with fireworks when I reach the parking lot. Every day on a job should end with pyrotechnics.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)