On the surface, it seemed like an innocent enough effort to redefine the strike zone. Instead of having balls and strikes determined by the standards of each individual umpire, Major League Baseball issued a directive this spring.

It told players and umpires that the strike zone should begin at the knees and extend up to an area two inches above the belt. Officially, this order amounts to adjusting the size of the official strike zone, which, according to the rule book, begins at the letters on a player's uniform and extends down to his knees.

But umpires stopped calling strikes above the belt years ago, and in the American League, they haven't been calling many low pitches, either.

"The strike zone?" one AL manager asked sarcastically. "I thought it extended from the top of the belt to the bottom of the belt."

He may have been exaggerating a bit, but there's no question the strike zone has shrunk over the past two decades. Worse, some in baseball believe that the overall quality of umpiring also has declined. They say that umpires are more confrontational, less consistent and that their powerful union is protecting a few umpires who simply are too old or not very good.

Sandy Alderson, baseball's new executive vice president of operations, said his motives weren't so complex when he sent out the memo. Alderson is the highly respected former general manager of the Oakland Athletics who was hired by Commissioner Bud Selig to deal with a host of issues, including umpiring.

"There's a general desire in the industry to get back to something more consistent, not necessarily across leagues, but from game to game and umpire to umpire," Alderson said. "That consistency needs to be more in line with the rule book."

Regardless, his memo infuriated umpires, who felt he was questioning their competence. They also believe Alderson had an eye on next winter, when baseball's labor agreement with its umpires ends. Baseball likely will seek to centralize umpiring instead of having separate staffs for the American and National leagues. Baseball also will seek more control over the quality of its officiating.

General managers recently voted 30-0 to combine the AL and NL umpiring staffs.

"My goal is to create a situation where the umpires are perceived to be of the highest quality, the premier sports officials anywhere in the world," Alderson said. "Now, there are some, I guess, that say that goal has already been achieved."

Richie Phillips, head of the umpires union, is one of them. "The quality of umpiring is higher than it's ever been," he said.

In response to the strike zone directive, the umps filed a grievance claiming Alderson had issued the memo without the approval of baseball's rules committee. And most of the umpires, in both private and public conversations, said they weren't going to pay it much mind anyway. The game, they said, is fine with the strike zone they now have.

After one recent spring training game, three veteran umpires sat in their cramped quarters, drenched with perspiration, discussing their problems with the strike zone directive and what they believed would be done about it.

"When you're in the heat of battle, you're going to do what you've been doing for 24 years," AL umpire Greg Kosc said. "That's only natural. Your mind-set is to do it the way you've always done it. Personally, I've been calling that [high strike] pitch my whole career."

Larry Young of the American League said: "Our problem is that he [Alderson] didn't go through the proper channels. He tried to change the rules on his own."

Joe West of the National League said: "I think we're better educated and more professional than at any time in the game's history. But you turn on ESPN and there's the bad call. There may be 14 games in a single night, and the umpires did everything right except for one call. That's the one you'll see on television."

Despite the storm of protest that accompanied the directive, virtually no one in baseball expects much change in the way balls and strikes are called.

"I haven't seen a change and don't expect to see one," Montreal Expos Manager Felipe Alou said. "I believe each umpire has his own strike zone, and that's not going to change. It's just like a player. You can't take a veteran player and ask him to change if he'd been successful doing something for 10 years. If you're going to change the strike zone, you have to start in the minor leagues with the young umpires. This is the big leagues. When the season starts, you're going to react just like you've always reacted. The high strike is foreign to them."

Baltimore Manager Ray Miller agreed, saying: "I think they've called a few more high pitches. But I'm pretty sure when the season starts they're going to go back to calling it the way they've always called it. You can't ask a guy to change the way he's been doing something for 25 years. If we're going to change it, we've got to start with the minor leagues -- with both the young umpires and the young players."

Some of the players with the best views of the strike zone also have noticed only minor changes.

"I've seen a couple of high pitches called," Orioles catcher Charles Johnson said. "Those pitches would have been balls in previous years. For the most part, I haven't seen much of a change. I don't think it's going to be a big difference. If you're a pitcher, you want to keep the ball down. If you're a hitter, you want the pitcher to get the ball up."

What's Great About the Game

The strike.

Now it's the size of the zone and not the length of the walkout.

Scrambling for home run balls.

The contact sport of late summer starts Opening Day this season.

The Yankees.

The team without a superstar has added one in Roger Clemens, making them once again THE villains of summer.

Explaining The Strike Zone

What the Official Baseball Rules Say:

2.00 Definition of Terms

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

Baseball's memo to teams:

From Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of operations:

Feb. 19, 1999

"This is to inform you that, at the direction of commissioner Selig, and after consultation with the league presidents, the `strike zone' as defined in the official playing rules will be more strictly enforced in 1999 by umpires in both leagues."

The memo said that while the top of the strike zone is difficult to define, "the upper limit of the strike zone will extend two inches above the top of the uniform pants."

The Typical Controversy

During last season's home run chase, Mark McGwire was thrown out of the first inning of a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves after arguing a called third strike. McGwire thought the pitch, shown above and below, was low and inside. Criticism of strike zones has risen in the past two years, with players complaining of inconsistencies.