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Working the count has become baseball's sadder lexicon

It was exactly one hundred years ago when Franklin P. Adams wrote what is, after Casey At The Bat, sport's most famous poem. It appeared in the New York Evening Mail, entitled "Baseball's Sad Lexicon," as Adams lamented how three players on the Chicago Cubs kept thwarting his beloved hometown team.

It went, of course, like this:

"These are the saddest of possible words,

Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Trio of bear cubs, fleeter than birds,

Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,

Making a Giant hit into a double,

Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble,

Tinker to Evers to Chance."

The three gentlemen who were upsetting the sports-page poet in 1910 were the double-play combination of shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers and first baseman Frank Chance, but today, a century later, in 2010, all baseball faces a much more serious scourge -- the dreadful strategy of what is called "working the count." That means that the idea is no longer to swing away, but to fight a battle of attrition, make the pitcher throw more pitches, stall, wait him out.

So the pitcher retaliates by taking more time and the catcher makes serial trips to the mound, and the batters call time out constantly, incessantly monkeying with their batting gloves, delaying, loitering, dragging out every at-bat. Hitters who can take pitches and get walks now seem more valued than hitters who can actually . . . hit.

Come back, steroids: all is forgiven.

So the games get longer. The average time now approaches three hours. Our hero is Cowboy Joe West, an umpire who dared publicly call out the Yankees and Red Sox for being the worst offenders -- which they are, year after year. (Be sure to bring extra provisions if you're going to see any games in their next Series, starting Friday.) The Yankees old manager, Joe Torre, has carried the virus to his new team, the Dodgers. Now LA is the slowest team in the National League -- working the count. And, of course, we spectators are the big losers, down for the count.

Defenders of baseball always get very sensitive when critics snort that the game is too slow. Yes, part of baseball's charm is that, by taking its time, it enjoys an intellectual suspense other sports don't. A slow dance is more romantic. At a certain point, though, the obsession for working the count is twisting the game's cherished rhythm into stultifying sluggishness.

And so, a century on from Tinker to Evers to Chance, we have, this year, "Baseball's Sadder Lexicon:"

These are the saddest of possible words:

Working the count.

Hopelessly boring, slower than curds,

Working the count.

Strategically destroying the grace of the game,

Turning each at-bat into a pain,

Words that are heavy with nothing but shame:

Working the count.

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