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Baby, It's Cold Outside - Evaluating '07's Outdoor Baseball...By Nelson Lardner

In what is certainly the leader in the clubhouse in major league baseball's iconic/ironic department, last Friday's series opener between the visiting Mariners and homestanding Indians was brought to a halt by a relentless snowstorm with two outs, in the top of the fifth inning.

The abbreviation of the game due to a snow-out was inevitable, but the timing was not. For that, thank M's manager (and Indian manager through most of the 90s) Mike Hargrove, who took trumped-up exception to Indian pitcher Paul Byrd's delaying tactics during Jose Lopez' at-bat, and came out of the dugout to bitch and moan. With that tactic, the one-time "Human Rain Delay" (so named due to his endless pitch-by-pitch batter's-box routine when a player with the Indians) extracted a no-decision from the jaws of defeat. The snow worsened, and the game, with the Tribe up 4-0 and needing but one more out to make it official, was never resumed.

Baseball at Jacobs Field hasn't resumed since. All scheduled and re-scheduled hardball activity in Cleveland has been whited-out by sustained snowfalls. Desperate in the face of sustained threatening forecasts, Cleveland and MLB arranged for the midweek series with the LAA Angels, scheduled to begin Tuesday night, to be transferred to Milwaukee's Miller Park in an all-out effort to avoid future game-stacking, further straining Cleveland's attempts to cope with their subsequent schedule.

The Tribe's been the poster-child victim of the Northeast's sustained early-season cold spell, but is unique only in the severity of its difficulties. The vast majority of the campaign's opening activities in the non-domed northern gamesites have been played out in conditions seldom encountered during the good old days' 154-game schedule, when the season opener was played about now, and endless postseason series didn't extend baseball closer to November than the founding fathers intended.

Effects were clearcut, both on paper and visually. Last season, there were almost two and a half home runs per game stroked during season's opening week. This year, the average number of round-trippers per contest dipped below the Mendoza Line of 2 during the same schedule segment.

Accompanying overall run production was down, as well. And it wasn't because pitchers were miles ahead of the hitters, kiddies. Wherever hitters could see their breath during at-bats, you saw the same pattern, time and again. Good hitters work the count. In games played in iceboxes, too many hitters were impatient/overanxious, taking serious cuts before the pitch, situation and count deemed it prudent. It was like watching the typical getaway-afternoon game with both teams anxious to get on their planes and travel to the next stop . . . with batters all too willing to sacrifice a measure of their potential strategic advantages.

And armed with basic knowledge of the long-term performance patterns of major-league plate umpires . . . if you felt compelled to state that it seemed more than possible that some men in black working behind the dish in nippy weather were broadening their individual strike zones, you'll get no argument from me.

All this doesn't even begin to address the potential effects of the current state of steroid sensitivity within the Grand Old Game. Most recently, you just haven't seen folks swollen to sizes marked larger than they displayed in their earlier lives, do you, now?

And what does it say regarding the professionalism of the modern baseballer (or umpire), that such a significant number of them appear to have altered their approaches to their livelihood because it's just a widdle bit cold, out there?

All this grief . . . being forced to put on the game at much less than its optimum form . . . has brought the usual talk about dedicated early-season schedule tweaking designed to get teams playing in northern open-air parks away from home, in early April. You hate to see mediocre starts front-loaded on the collective backs of such teams, but this year's weather has brought things to a head.

There's relevant history, here. Reacting to bad weather problems in the major northern markets in April of '96, the '97 opening acts were a classic test case of the trial balloons currently being floated. It was not an unbridled success, as the second Saturday of the campaign showcased a hard-eight postponements!

Were I cashing Buddy's paycheck, I'd look to engineer all the Northern outdoorsmen into schedules featuring two of their initial three series on the road - with the home exception being against a divisional opponent, thus facilitating easier makeup opportunities, if and as required. Anything more extreme isn't fair to those involved.

It remains challenging to try to outmaneuver Mother Nature this early. After Cleveland got snowed out of their Seattle series, to Miller Park they went, after a desperate idea to abruptly transfer the series to Anaheim proved wildly-impractical, from a fiscal standpoint (the Angels have two home series scheduled with Cleveland this year, both boasting enormous advance sales for every game, and Anaheim could hardly be asked to make the box-office sacrifice inherent in the switch). So, despite sustained lousy weather in Beer City, the show went on. It did NOT go on, Wednesday, in Chicago, as the Cub series finale against the Astros was snowed out.

There appears to be more than a glimmer of hope for this weekend, but until then, be careful when pounding those "overs", and look to avoid overindulging in what has too often been a compromised product.

Nelson Lardner

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