There are two kinds of baseball games in this world. The first kind is the baseball game that you sort of care about, a little bit, kind of, because it’s fun. Examples include the MLB All-Star Game and the World Baseball Classic. Maybe you really, really care about those games, and bless you for that. But there are millions who enjoy them without being overly invested.
Then there are the baseball games that you watch intently, start to finish, all three hours, inhaling the negative space between each pitch and releasing it in a pillar of flame. These are the games that define seasons and careers. Bad teams can throw no-hitters. Great teams can win championships. You care about these games.
Also, there are the boring games during the regular season that you forget about by the next day. Three kinds of baseball games. There are three kinds of baseball games in this world. And maybe a few others that I’m forgetting.
But focus on that first set of games for now. These are the prestige games. They’re an unholy hybrid between spring training and the World Series, which makes you indifferent and interested at the same time. You know why the World Baseball Classic and All-Star Games are supposed to be fun — The best players! The attention! — and you know why you don’t care as much.
Now the other games. You watch because you know there’s a payoff waiting. Maybe not in every game, but eventually. There’s going to be a long home run at the perfect time, a walk-off win that ends with your sports heroes acting like morons at home plate, a strikeout that releases every last bit of tension in your spine.
When baseball messes with the rules to the All-Star Game or World Baseball Classic, the proper response is “eh.” There might be some grumbling. I know I’ve made plenty of “This Time It Counts!” jokes. But, honestly, it’s hard to care. These are fun games, but if you had to give one set of games up — you can have the WBC or the regular season, but not both — you wouldn’t take two seconds to come up with an answer. That’s why the rules can change for the WBC, and a day can go by without the world noticing.
From a WBC press release on Tuesday:
Extra Innings: For any inning beginning with the 11th inning, the Federation Team at-bat shall begin the inning with runners on first and second base. The batter who leads off an inning shall continue to be the batter who would lead off the inning in the absence of this extra-innings rule. The runner on first base shall be the player (or a substitute for such player) in the batting order immediately preceding the batter who leads off the inning. The runner on second base shall be the player (or a substitute for such player) in the batting order immediately preceding the runner on first base.
OK. This makes sense. The rosters are filled with players in whom professional sports teams that have invested millions of dollars and billions of yen. The games are fun, and national pride is super, but no one wants to see an ace pitcher throwing six innings in relief on two-day’s rest because the bullpen was mismanaged and the alternative is to forfeit. No one wants to see a catcher squatting for 18 innings because the alternative is to play a position player back there and risk injury.
And, perhaps most importantly, I’m not sure how many people are going to be riveted to the TV after 10 innings of exhibition-serious baseball. I’m more than OK with this.
This, from Yahoo! on Wednesday, makes a similar amount of sense:
Major League Baseball plans on testing a rule change in the lowest levels of the minor leagues this season that automatically would place a runner on second base at the start of extra innings, a distinct break from the game’s orthodoxy that nonetheless has wide-ranging support at the highest levels of the league, sources familiar with the plan told Yahoo! Sports.
Rookie-level baseball games fall into the category of exhibition-serious, with fans who care and care an awful lot, but fans who understand the business concerns. There are reasons to avoid having a team filled with teenagers play 18-inning games in the GCL. Very good reasons. This is a-OK.
MLB’s desire to test it in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Arizona League this summer is part of an effort to understand its wide in-game consequences — and whether its implementation at higher levels, and even the major leagues, may be warranted.
You monsters. The whole country is a rejected Final Fantasy plot right now, and you drop this in our laps? You absolute monsters.
If that change were implemented in the majors, it would cut to the core of those other games, the ones that define your affection for the sport. It would be an absolute travesty.
Here’s a list of how many games each team played of 11 innings or more last year:
There are some teams that were understandably sick of marathon games. But I guarantee you, this was not a thought running through the minds of the fans watching them:
Oh, man, this is so tedious. Why do I even watch this sport?
These are the games that keep people coming back, not keep them away. For every dull, three-up/three-down slog in extra innings that seems to drag, there are a dozen games with relievers getting out of jams, homers in the top of the 12th that are negated by homers in the bottom of the 12th. There are walk-offs, and walk-offs that should have been. It’s laying it on a little thick to suggest that extra-inning games are the point of baseball, but the tension and release that’s behind every extra-inning game is absolutely the point of baseball.
Messing with extra-inning games is not going to get people more interested in baseball. No, this rule would shave some winnings off the top of baseball’s progressive jackpot.
Here is one of my favorite baseball games ever. It went 18 innings. The hero got a bobblehead given away at the ballpark the next season.
Here is one of my least favorite baseball games ever. It also went 18 innings. The Giants were 0-for-15 with runners in scoring position, and they lost, 1-0. I watched the whole stupid game, and when it was over, I felt like I ate a dirty ashtray.
That the 18-inning loss was a part of the 18-inning win, though. It was folded up and shoved into the safety deposit box of my brain, and when the 18-inning win happened, I got to take it out and dance on it, even if I did it subconsciously. At no point have I ever contemplated the notion that extra-inning games are a problem. They are more of a solution, really. It’s just a solution that can’t be bottled.
The predictable outcome of this new rule are a thousand games that end when the other team starts with a runner on second and gets exactly one broken-bat hit. When that happens, a popular response will be this:
I can’t believe I watched that game for four hours just to watch them lose because of that stupid rule. Why do I even watch this sport?
When Game 7 of the 2016 World Series went into extra innings, I had a long story to write after the game and a flight to catch in Akron nine hours after the start of the 10th inning. And while the idea of a rain delay was freaking me out, I was giddy at the thought of 18 innings. It would have been extra flavor added to what was already one of the best baseball games we’ll ever see.
Imagine the Cubs losing on that broken-bat hit in the 11th inning. Imagine the Indians losing on it. “Why do I even watch this sport?” would have been the rule, not the exception.
There are ways to make baseball better. I have a list. They involve knuckleballs and 48-man rosters, and I’ll share my PowerPoint presentation with you one of these days. But jimmying with extra-innings games at the major league level, adding a veneer of cheapness and inequity to a part of the game that nobody was complaining about, seems like a detestable idea.
In the WBC? Super. In the GCL? Makes perfect sense. In the majors, though, it’s overthinking a problem that doesn’t exist.
This is probably just a trial balloon being floated by MLB, so I’ll end by paraphrasing Miller’s Crossing:
MLB: I'm tellin' you as a courtesy. I need to do this thing, so it's gonna get done.
Fans: And I'm tellin' you, as a courtesy, you'll have trouble. You came here to see if I'd kick if you screwed around with extra innings. Well, there's your answer.
Now take your intern’s bad idea and dangle.