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Original Issue

Higher Education This spring umps and players are struggling to learn the new strike zone

Early in spring training roving bands of umpires stopped by
every major league camp to school managers and players in the
new by-the-book strike zone, and this week the commissioner's
office had two strike-zone demonstrations planned for members of
the media. That's all helpful, but the strike zone is still like
the tax code--all the explaining in the world doesn't
necessarily make it easier to use, as the early exhibition games
have proved.

"It's an adjustment," says Jerry Crawford, a major league ump for
25 years. "Players and umpires are feeling each other out to get
a sense of what's a strike and what isn't. It's not something
that's going to be resolved before spring training is over."

For example, some players say umps, in their haste to establish
the high strike, have simply raised the old zone a few inches. "A
couple have told me they're concentrating so much on high strikes
that they're forgetting to call the low ones," says Devil Rays
catcher John Flaherty. Adds Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, "Some
[umps] have asked me, 'Do you think that's a strike? Is that high

Some early reads on how the new zone might change the game:

--Power pitchers will benefit. If pitchers can get strike calls on
chest-high fastballs, those who deliver them in the high 90s will
be nearly untouchable if they hit their spots. Every major league
hitter can turn on a fastball in the middle of the zone; few can
catch up to elite high heat. Says Baltimore pitching coach Mark
Wiley, "If he's getting that pitch, [Indians righthander] Bartolo
Colon may throw a no-hitter this year."

--Early-season slumps will give way to midseason onslaughts. In
the past, batters frequently took hittable belt-high pitches
because they knew they wouldn't be called strikes. When they
realize that they have to swing at those meatballs, the hits will
follow. "Once hitters get adjusted in the middle of the season,"
says Rangers closer Tim Crabtree, "there could be more home runs
than we've ever seen."

--Plate crowders might have to step back. In recent years hitters
have draped themselves over the plate to protect against strikes
low and away. Because such a stance makes it difficult to catch
up to pitches up in the zone, newly called high strikes might buy
pitchers some room. "We created a lot of low-ball hitters," Tampa
Bay manager Larry Rothschild says of the effect of not calling
high strikes until now. "It's tough to handle those high pitches
if you're on top of the plate."

--Stephen Cannella

COLOR PHOTO: LOUIS DELUCA/THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS Umpire Mark Hirschbeck gave the Rangers a zone tutorial.