In case you missed it Wednesday, here’s a three-year-old list of potential rule changes that Major League Baseball likely discussed. The evidence that the list is genuine is supported by the fact that a substantial portion of the rule changes have already gone into effect.
One of the ideas that was floated has stuck in my head for three years, and it’s become a real dental-plan-Lisa-needs-braces over the last 24 hours. This would be the idea of a mercy rule.
It is, without question, the dumbest proposed change on the list.
To be entirely fair, all we have is this list from years ago. Rob Manfred has floated a lot of ideas over the last three years — from limiting relievers to banning the shift — and I’m guessing he did it because it was cheaper than getting a few focus groups together. He was taking the temperature of the fans and people around baseball. And he hasn’t said anything about a mercy rule.
It’s possible that this bullet point was only included to appease Carl.
“And if that’s all, we’ll move on to the next order of ...”
“Wait. What about the mercy rule?”
“Dammit, Carl, nobody thinks this is a good idea.”
“I think it’s a good idea.”
“Carl, we’ve talked about this.”
“It just feels like I’m not taken seriously around here, that’s all.”
[deep, enduring sigh that lasts for a full 90 seconds]
“OK. Fine. Fine, we’ll add it to the agenda, Carl.”
Carl is sensitive! And rightfully so, considering that everyone in the office hates him. Mostly because he comes up with ideas like a mercy rule.
There is a widely accepted mercy rule in competitive baseball, and it’s used in the World Baseball Classic. There are reasons for this, though, mostly having to do with baseball-as-a-second-language teams from France or Malta or Freedonia who aren’t going to capture their country’s interest in an untraditional sport by losing 37-0 to a team featuring Buster Posey and Max Scherzer. No one benefits from that. There’s also the idea that some of the countries will be stuffed with major leaguers who have day jobs with teams counting on them, and every inning not pitched is an inning that a professional doesn’t have to throw in March. In these contexts, the mercy rule makes sense.
In the context of Major League Baseball, get the hell out of here. I’m hopping mad just thinking about it.
You don’t need 1,500 words on the beauty of the tremendously unlikely comeback win. Mostly because I’ve already written them again and again. They are the kinds of baseball games that demand oral histories. And I guess they always involve the Mariners? We’ll have to figure that last part out later.
But it’s worth pointing out that unlikely comeback wins that don’t happen are also fun. One of my favorite baseball viewing experiences of the last decade was when the Giants lost 12-11 in extra innings to the Reds. They were down 10-1 and clawed all the way back to 11-11 before falling in the 12th. The feeling after the game wasn’t despondency, but rather ... pride? Less shame? There was a weird satisfaction that came with the game, and there were certainly merit badges handed out for the people who stuck around for the whole game.
On Wednesday night, the A’s thumped the Dodgers, 16-6. That sounds like a boring game, and for the most part, it was. Except in the sixth inning, when it was 9-2, the Dodgers mounted a little comeback. There was a double and an error and a single, and after an RBI groundout, the Dodgers were down, 9-4, with Yasiel Puig up and a runner on base. A home run would have brought the Dodgers within three runs. That’s when this happened:
The important thing to note on this is the crowd noise. The crowd was into it, and they were before the Puig fly ball. While this game wouldn’t have been eliminated with a mercy rule (which I’m assuming would take effect after a lead of 10 runs or more, based on the WBC), but it’s included as an example of the power of suggested comebacks. Once Puig was up, fans weren’t just thinking about the what-ifs of his at-bat. They were thinking about the sequence that could follow a successful Puig at-bat. See, if Puig gets a hit here, and then Chris Taylor gets a single, and maybe Joc Pederson can launch one, and ...
That’s the implied beauty of a blowout comeback. You don’t have to point at the Indians and Mariners from 2001 as a case study for why mercy rules are trash. But that game exists as a template that informs the fans who stick around for blowout losses today. It’s one of the games that makes unrelated dumb blowouts more fun almost two decades later. It’s not just that a mercy rule would take away the 14-0 deficits that become 15-14 wins; it’s that they would take away the 14-0 deficits that become 14-9 losses and become surprisingly fun toward the end.
The most important consideration, though, is that there already is a mercy rule. People leave. People turn off the TV. People say, “Mercy. I give up. I’m through with this game.” No one is forced to watch a game until its conclusion, arriving to work in tears the next morning about the hours they wasted at the ballpark. Which is to say, these aren’t the games that are making baseball less popular with the younger generation. There will not be a single new fan created because of a baseball game that ended early. I’ve been trying to think of a scenario for an hour, and all I can come up with is someone who wasn’t interested in sports at all, but suddenly became compelled by the etiquette and sportsmanship of one team not wanting to rub a victory in the face of another team?
That doesn’t make any sense.
Some people decide not to implement a mercy rule on their own, though. Some people sit like Walter Sobchak, aware of the mess around them, yet absolutely committed to finishing their cup of coffee. When the Orioles lost to the Rangers, 30-3, this kid stuck around until the end of the game:
He got a foul ball, and if he hadn’t already fallen in love with baseball, he was hooked now. That screenshot is the only argument against the mercy rule that you’ll ever need. Juxtapose it with the metaphysical certainty that a mercy rule wouldn’t add a single fan, and this discussion is over.
Again, this is just Carl being Carl, most likely. One out-of-context bullet point on a three-year-old list that was passed on to me by a creeper with a cell phone camera is not evidence of anything imminent. The idea might have been discussed for six minutes and buried deep beneath the earth, where it belongs.
But as long as I’m mad on the internet, I have to get it out of my system. Long live the blowout. Long live the inspired and improbable comeback. And long live the games that are somewhere in between, letting you use your imagination to enjoy baseball in a glorious, speculative way. They’re absolutely essential.