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Around the Horn

New Minor League Rule Goes Too Far

Commissioner Rob Manfred and baseball executives in general have had a bee in their bonnet about "pace of play" for some time now. They think baseball is allowing games to take too long, that fans don't have the patience for a three-hour game in this modern age of short attention spans and digital distractions.

They may have a point. Just because I'm fine attending a 3½ hour game doesn't mean lots of others don't lose patience. Some tweaks to keep things moving along—limiting the number of mound visits, enforcing a stay-in-the-batter's-box protocol, even, maybe, a pitch clock—are worth consideration. But this latest "innovation" being implemented at all levels of the minor leagues this year is a bridge too far.

In all minor-league games that go into extra innings this year, the batting team will be "spotted" a runner on second base. This is similar to a rule that was used in the World Baseball Classic in 2017, and in that format it was understandable (if somewhat distasteful). The WBC's rule actually placed two runners on base to start an inning (and only kicked in from the 11th inning on) and served its purpose rather well, leading to quick scoring and thus a relatively quick end to games. The WBC, however, is a short-format tournament with multiple games played in a venue each day, and with usage limits for pitchers that could become untenable in a long extra-inning game. Implementing a similar rule for a regular season is another can of worms. Slimy, disgusting, gross worms.

So much of what makes the game of baseball interesting—and distinct from the other major sports—is the strategic variations a team can use (or not use, if you're of the Cito Gaston school of management). Under this rule, the strategy becomes fairly predictable; some Earl Weaver-types might not go this route, but most managers will do this: First batter bunts the runner to third base. Second batter drives him in with a hard grounder or a sac fly. Repeat in the bottom half of the inning. Repeat again if both teams succeed or both teams fail.

I'm not into other sports. I don't really know how shootouts work in the NHL or if other sports have esoteric tiebreaking procedures, and frankly I don't care. Baseball doesn't need this kind of mucking with. Lengthy extra-inning games are part of baseball lore. It's something managers need to keep in mind in order to avoid the embarrassment of a 2002 All-Star Game fiasco. Taking away the basic concept of extra innings cheapens the foundation of the game.

One of my favorite memories of my time at Mariner games was the 19-inning contest in 2000 versus the Red Sox. My friend Mike and I were in my then-regular seats in section 337, enjoying each new inning as if we were Jerry Seinfeld in first class. "More of anything?" "More of everything!" When Mike Cameron won it with a home run in the bottom of the 19th, it was particularly satisfying in a way that a 10th-inning sac fly scoring a runner that didn't earn his way on base simply could never be.

If baseball execs are truly determined to reduce the time of the typical game, there's an easy way to do it: one minute between half-innings, no more, no less. But that won't happen because they will never be willing to give up that much in the way of TV commercials. To their credit, Manfred and company have put in place new guidelines for between-inning commercial time—2 minutes and 5 seconds for locally televised games, 2:25 for nationally televised games, 2:55 for postseason games. Other tweaks like restricting mound visits and pitch clocks can save a few seconds here and there, but nothing significant. Commercial breaks and replay challenges are the only areas in which to find real time.

But instead, Manfred and company are vandalizing the fabric of the game by making extra innings baseball's version of a shootout. That's like treating a cut on your finger by amputating your arm.

Have a different take? Sound off in the comments below!

The new MiLB extra innings rule is:

Comments

  • Posted by Mack McCoy on March 31, 2018 (8 months ago)

    This is just another step towards admitting that minor league baseball is a sham, it is literally not about who wins or loses but instead “how they play the game,” and maybe they don’t have to keep the minor league park open late at night to accommodate a marathon.

    On the major league level, though . . . hockey and baseball have been wrestling with what happens when the players get so big and so strong. Pitchers need twenty, twenty-five seconds to recover from throwing the last pitch with every ounce of their might, and hitters need the same after swinging just as hard. So the days of two-hour games and 8:00 nighttime starts is over, unless baseball institutes a clock of some sort to get the action moving faster.

    For me, the shootout in hockey is the most boring thing ever; I wouldn’t hang around to watch one, I could wait until I got into my car to find out who won. And I’m not really sure that I need the game to end by 11:30 so badly that they should start innings with runners on base, but given that the concession stands are closed, I can see why MLB is starting to wonder . . . why do we have to keep the park open late at night to accommodate a marathon?

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