"The last dimension," wrote Roger Angell, the esteemed baseball
chronicler of The New Yorker, "is time. Within the ballpark,
time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of
the game. This is the unique, unchangeable feature of baseball."
Were Angell to sit in the concrete-and-wood grandstands of cozy
Alden Field in Bridgeton, N.J., next month, he might rethink
that assertion. As it has for the past 29 summers, this town of
19,000 will host the Bridgeton Invitational Semi-Pro Baseball
Tournament, and the brand of baseball on display will bear
little resemblance to Angell's leisurely game. Sixteen teams
from throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic will convene on
Aug. 5, all drawn by Alden Field's most distinctive feature: a
The timer, perched above an old scoreboard in left centerfield,
is a variation on basketball's 24-second clock, and it keeps
tournament games moving at an unAngellian pace. What began as
a gimmick to lure fans to the tournament in 1967 has become the
linchpin of the event. There are 20 speed-up rules governing
play at Alden Field, including stipulations that the pitcher
start his windup within 20 seconds of getting the ball from his
catcher or an infielder; that batters get in the box within 10
seconds of the preceding play's conclusion; and that teams take
only 90 seconds to change sides between innings.
"It's constant motion," says Ed Lynch, manager of the two-time
defending-champion team from Rising Sun, Md., and a former
Bridgeton Invitational player. "That clock, for a first-year
player, is intimidating. There's none of this checking your cup
12 times before every play. That clock can get inside your head."
"The players have to get in the box, ready to hit," says chief
umpire Alex DePutron, who has worked several Bridgeton
Invitationals. "The pitchers have to be ready to throw. It's a
pleasure." To the fan accustomed to the endless preening of .200
hitters and to lengthy television breaks between innings, the
dispatch with which players at the Bridgeton Invitational move
is startling. Nobody dusts off after sliding. Batters trot up to
Violations of the tournament's sacred rules are dealt with--how
else?--swiftly. Whenever the timer reaches zero, the clock
operator in the press box pushes a button that sets off a bell.
If the violation is committed by the team at bat, a strike is
called on the batter. If it is by the team in the field, a ball
The rules have created some unintentionally humorous situations,
such as the time Bob Gildea, player-manager of Gildea's Raiders,
from Wilmington, Del., went to the mound to calm a restless
hurler. "I just went out there to talk to him, to try and settle
him down," Gildea recalls. "Well, I talked a little too long,
and by the time I got off that mound, the poor guy had a 2-0
count against him. Some help."
Pitcher Dickie Noles, one of several ex-major-leaguers who have
played in the Bridgeton Invitational, vividly recalls his
introduction to the speed-up rules. "I'm in the on-deck circle
when Joe Singley, the hitter in front of me, gets called out on
strikes," says Noles, who plays for Gildea's squad. "He starts
to argue the call, and he's a big guy, so I figure, Well, it's
common courtesy, I'll let him get his two cents' worth. All of a
sudden, bing! Strike one. Okay, the heck with common courtesy. I
say, 'Joe, let's move it!'"
Or there was Gildea's first experience. "In my first at bat," he
says, "I was late getting to the box. One strike. Then, later in
the at bat, I inadvertently stepped out of the box. Two strikes.
And I hadn't even thought about swinging yet." Flailing in
desperation at the next offering, Gildea knocked a solo home
run. At least he says he did.
Virtually nothing stops the clock. Try to imagine this
Bridgetonian scenario taking place at a major league stadium:
"I'm out in rightfield, and our centerfielder runs smack into
the wall trying to chase down a fly," Gildea recalls. "He's
lying there, his glasses are busted, his nose is all split up.
Well, I go running over to him, and he's bleeding like crazy.
Then all of a sudden I hear that bing! We waited to take him off
between innings, so he stood in centerfield, holding a rag on
his nose, hoping the ball won't hit him.
"I learned one thing: Don't get hurt in Bridgeton."
There is no arguing that the rules work--and arguments, by the
way, are limited to 40 seconds. It's not uncommon for an
apoplectic manager to turn on his heels just before the timer
hits zero and amble placidly back to the bench. Umpires,
meanwhile, can gaze serenely out toward the clock, knowing that
time is on their side.
A seven-inning game at Alden Field is almost always over in less
than an hour and a half. The tournament's rigorous format--about
32 games played over two weeks--demands nightly doubleheaders.
Many twin bills take less time than one Phillies game 50 miles
up Route 55 at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium.
The game clock was the brainchild of tournament cofounders Jerry
Alden (for whom the ballpark is named) and Ben Lynch. Alden, a
local radio sports director who passed away in 1993, discovered
a clock in use in a tournament in Wichita, Kans., in the
mid-'60s and copied the idea for his tournament. He and Lynch
came up with 19 speed-up rules the first year, and over the
years, the original rules really haven't changed much. There has
been some rewording and renumbering--that's why there are now 20
rules--but no major revisions or additions.
The tournament has won attention not only for its rules but also
for the baseball celebrities who make appearances each summer.
Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle, Satchel Paige, Bob Feller, Joe
DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Roy Campanella and Steve Carlton have
all made it to Alden Field, mostly through the efforts of
ambitious promoters such as current tournament director Bob
Rose. In 1986, after betting Alden that he could lure DiMaggio
to Bridgeton--and failing to do so--Rose, as promised, had his
beard shaved while sitting in a barber's chair on the pitcher's
mound. The Yankee Clipper showed up the following year.
One of Bridgeton's most influential celebrity visitors was Hall
of Famer Monte Irvin, who was working for Major League Baseball
in 1969 when commissioner Bowie Kuhn dispatched him to study the
tournament's special rules. Irvin loved Bridgeton and paid close
attention to speed-up rule number 15, which begins, "The line-up
can contain a designated hitter.... "
"[Major League Baseball] had talked about the designated hitter
before," Irvin says, "but that was the first place I'd ever seen
it." Bridgeton's DH rule allows the hitter to bat for both the
pitcher and the catcher, although not in the same inning.
(Experienced strategists realize that the best way to capitalize
on this rule is to separate the pitcher and catcher in the
batting order, thereby guaranteeing more at bats for the
Bridgeton's double DH and Alden Field's cozy dimensions--320
feet down the lines and 350 to dead center--help to produce
frequent offensive fireworks. Says Philadelphia Stars pitcher
George Riley, another ex-major-leaguer, "I love this place."
Pause. "But they have got to get a bigger ballpark." The fans,
not surprisingly, disagree.
"They want an 11-10 slugfest every night," Gildea says, "and a
lot of times they get it."
Although the DH was adopted in the majors, speed-up rules may be
a tougher sell. Even among Bridgeton players, the prospect of
fast big league games gets a mixed response.
"I wouldn't mind seeing some of these concepts make it into the
major leagues," Gildea says. "I think they'd have an immediate
impact, and besides, after you've watched a few games like this,
you don't even notice the special rules are there. You just get
used to them."
Noles disagrees, despite his fondness for Bridgeton rules. "I'd
hate to see it come into the [big league] game," he says,
echoing Angell's theme. "That's what's sacred about the game. A
game can last forever. I don't think speeding up baseball would
That attitude doesn't cut it in Bridgeton. A few years back, a
bolt of lightning zapped the Alden Field clock in the middle of
the tournament. Undeterred, Rose called the company in Iowa that
manufactured the clock and had one shipped to Bridgeton
overnight. The tournament sped on.
Matt Toll plans to take his daughter, Katharine, 1, to her first
Bridgeton Invitational next month.
TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JEFFREY WONG [Drawing of baseball player pitching in front of giant alarm clock; drawing of man holding beverage and running towards ringing alarm clock]