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Another death knell for the purpose pitch

The war on beanballs calls attention to dying art of coming inside.

Umpires supposedly will have zero tolerance this season for pitchers intentionally throwing at hitters. Keep this up, and they are going to give the beanball a bad name.

It has nearly become a lost art, the practice of keeping hitters loose in the batter's box. So few pitchers are adept at pitching inside, hitters have taken over the inner portion of the plate.

When pitchers try to come inside, they do not do it properly. Instead of intimidating hitters, they tend to infuriate them.

"When I first came to the big leagues, when a guy was throwing inside, he was aiming for the belt buckle. Now, they're going at the head," said Jim McKean, a major-league umpire for nearly 30 years. "We're just trying to take the beanball out of the game. There's too much potential for injury."

The combination of ugly brawls and celebrated cases such as Roger Clemens hitting Mike Piazza in the head last season has nudged baseball toward action on the issue. Umpires have always had the discretion to eject pitchers suspected of head-hunting, but the normal protocol has been to issue a warning first. Now, umpires are encouraged to eject first and ask questions later.

To help umpires keep abreast of potential beanball wars, Major League Baseball will provide them with information at the beginning of every series that will highlight any bad blood between the teams.

"I think the idea is great, but I don't think it will be easy to enforce because there are too many variables," Phillies pitching coach Vern Ruhle said. "It's hard to say what the intent is. Maybe a guy is trying to find his rhythm and is a little wild. If Mark Wohlers wants to hit somebody, will he get away with it because his control hasn't been as good? You're putting the umpires at risk in terms of the emotions and stress of the game. The umpires are quality guys, but you're asking too much of them at this point."

A generation ago, this issue was largely moot. Pitchers threw inside and hitters accepted it as part of the game.

Fall behind 0-and-2 and you could expect to be backed off the plate with the next pitch. Spend too much time getting your feet set in the box and a pitcher would take you off your feet. And heaven forbid you take a slow trot around the bases after hitting a home run.

"You hit one out against a (Don) Drysdale or a (Bob) Gibson and you put your head down, run around the bases, come back and sit in the dugout," said Frank Howard, a two-time home run champion and the Rays senior adviser for baseball operations. "And the next time you came up, you hoped they didn't give you a new part in your hair."

Because pitching inside was a common practice years ago, pitchers learned how to keep hitters on their toes without actually drilling them. By throwing an inside fastball across the letters, a pitcher could keep a hitter from crowding the plate and diving into a pitch.

Over the years, the inside pitch gradually has gone the way of the high strike. One theory is that aluminum bats used in amateur ball have discouraged pitchers from throwing inside. If a hitter hits a pitch on the handle with a wooden bat, you're likely to get a popup and a shattered bat. With an aluminum bat, a pitch on the handles still can be muscled for a hit.

"Pitchers like Drysdale and Gibson, they knew how to pitch inside," Phillies manager Larry Bowa said. "They didn't go at heads. They went for the ribs or the belt buckle, and that's a lost art. Guys just don't know how to pitch inside. So when they're told they have to come inside, they're up around a guy's head. I don't think anybody means to hit a batter in the head, but I don't think they know how to go inside with purpose.

"I can honestly tell you, I don't care if there is a live ball or not, pitchers like (Tom) Seaver and Gibson would not have allowed 50 home runs to be hit in a year. They would not allow it. Guys would have to wear rib pads if they were hitting that many home runs."

In fact, players today have taken toward wearing armor at the plate. Pads on the elbow, wrist and even torso have taken some of the fear factor away from hitters. So, to cut down on hitters crowding the plate this season, baseball is not allowing oversized elbow pads. If a player wants to wear one, he has to wear a small, baseball-issued pad. To wear anything larger, a player will have to get a doctor's note verifying an injury.

It is difficult to determine what impact the changes will have. Umpires may be more willing to eject pitchers, but they also are supposed to call the inside strike that has gradually disappeared. Does that mean pitchers will be more or less willing to come inside?

A few pitchers, the best pitchers, have always known how to throw inside. Part of the success of Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson is that they are not afraid to move a hitter off the plate.

All it takes is a few inside pitches to move the hitters back and open up the outside corner for the pitcher. Martinez is probably the greatest practitioner of the purpose pitch. His control is so impeccable, he had the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the American League last season. Yet, even with that outstanding control, he was second in the league in hit batsmen.

"You have to be able to pitch inside to survive," Royals closer Roberto Hernandez said. "You have to get an inside strike and you have to keep the hitter from sitting on pitches on the outside corner.

"There is a right way and a wrong way to pitch inside. You want to send a message, you can send a message. Everybody knows when a pitcher is sending a message or a manager is sending a message. You can tell by the game situation, and there's nothing wrong with that. Now when you got a guy head-hunting, that's the wrong way."