This month, as baseball fans looked forward to the start of spring training, news emerged that Major League Baseball was considering modifying its rules to change the game more than anything since the end of the deadball era. The idea, as Jeff Passan reported for Yahoo News, is that if a game goes into extra innings, a runner would be automatically placed at second at the start of each half-inning.
For a sport with a deep connection to its history, such a change would be dramatic. It would also be a huge mistake, and alienate longtime fans in aid of the owners’ misbegotten obsession with shortening the length of games. Reaction among fans and writers has been uniformly negative, and MLB should think hard before foisting this plan on an unwilling public.
Let’s Not Turn MLB Into Football
Ideas for tweaks of the rules emerge every winter, when no games are being played and owners can take a long view about the future of the sport. The men who run MLB want to ensure that their game stays at the heart of American life, and it is natural that they should consider changing things that have become hindrances to that goal. But they should be careful not to end up like the NFL, which has pursued the idea of the perfect rulebook at the expense of producing an enjoyable product.
Football changes its rules every year. Usually, the shifts are minor, but occasionally (and far more often than in baseball) they change the nature of the game. Football needs to do this, to some extent, because when the NFL rose to prominence, it was a minor sports league trying to break into a sports world dominated by baseball, boxing, and horse racing. It succeeded in displacing the latter two, and has even surpassed baseball by some measures, but the cost was the obliteration of its history.
Do they care that the game of football is vastly different now than it was in 1967? Probably not; it was the price of prominence. But baseball fans would see things differently.
Changing the Rules Has Big Consequences
Consider the record books. Most of the great achievements in NFL football have taken place in the lifespan of a millennial. Most rushing touchdowns in a season? LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. Most passing touchdowns in a season? Peyton Manning in 2013. Most passing yards in a season? Manning again, in the same year. Most field goals in a year? David Akers in 2011.
The reason for this is simple: the league lengthened the season to 16 games in 1978, a 14 percent increase over the 14-game season that had been the standard since 1961, and a 33 percent increase over the 12-game season that was the standard before that. Few of Jim Brown’s or Don Hutson’s records are likely to hold up after that.
Compare that to baseball, where lengthening the season by eight games—5 percent of the total—led to contention over records that continues to this day. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season homerun record in 1961, purists demanded appending an asterisk to the record, accounting for the eight extra games Maris had to achieve the feat.
That asterisk was eventually forgotten, and now the debate over records hinges more on the legitimacy of records broken during what amounted to an informal rule change: when baseball closed its eyes to widespread abuse of performance-enhancing drugs. Even that debate shows the extent to which baseball fans care about their sport’s history. It wasn’t just that Barry Bonds cheated; it was that he broke Hank Aaron’s honest record with dishonest play.
Baseball’s other major twentieth-century rule change, adopting the designated hitter rule, is still the cause of dissention today. The rule is probably here to stay, but the case of Edgar Martinez shows that it is not without complications. Martinez’s offensive production over a long career ranks him among the great players of his era, and there is no whiff of the steroid scandal around him. If he had played even a passable right field or first base, he would no doubt have joined his teammate, Ken Griffey Jr., in the Hall of Fame already.
But someone who almost never played the field for the last ten years of his career is seen by some as an incomplete ballplayer. The designated hitter rule was adopted in the American League in 1973, but many fans consider it illegitimate to this day. How much more illegitimate would this new rule be?
This Rule Won’t Improve the Game
Even beyond baseball’s basic conservatism, the designated-runner-in-position rule (DRIP?) or whatever they will call it, would not improve the game. Baseball is a game built around tension. Alone among America’s major sports, it is untimed. There is no running out the clock, no way to conceal your team’s flaws in the hope of being saved by the bell.
The game moves slowly most of the time, but can be changed in an instant. No lead is truly safe. A football team down three touchdowns with 30 seconds to play has won the game. A baseball team down three runs in the ninth inning with two outs has not yet lost it.
When a game goes to extra innings, it ratchets up the tension even further. The rules are unchanged, but the time is compressed. Give up a run in the top of the inning, and your team has only half an inning to make it up. Give up a run in the bottom of the inning, and it’s all over. But scoring that run is as hard as ever, and a team that has been shut down all game might still struggle to get a runner home. With the DRIP on second, even a cheap single could win a game for a team that could not get their act together to put a single run on the board through nine innings.
The goal here, of course, is to stop games from going on too long. Baseball has become obsessed with time, even though the average MLB game is only a couple of minutes longer than the average NFL game—both come in at a shade over three hours. But the part of the time fans resent is not the actual action on the field, it is the time between innings, between at-bats, and between pitches. Adding instant replays have only made that longer.
If MLB were truly concerned with the pace of play, they could insist batters stay in the batter’s box through the entire at-bat, or have pitchers stay on the mound more. They could eliminate the instant replay. They could even, heaven forbid, run fewer commercials.
Instead, the big brains at MLB headquarters have decided that the best way to make baseball better for the fans is to give them less baseball. When the final game of last year’s World Series went into extra innings, the game was already a long one. Rain delays, advertisements, and a lot of scoring pushed it beyond some viewers’ bedtimes. But would any fan have traded away the intensity of that tenth inning? The conclusion of that post-season was one for the ages. MLB would have you believe that everyone in the stands just wanted to get it over with.
Many Fans Love Longer Games
Baseball announcers have sometimes called extra innings “free baseball,” and that is a good way of looking at it. Barring a rainout, the fan in the bleachers has bought a ticket that guarantees him nine innings of baseball. This is a good bargain. A typical fan would not pay so much for two innings, and when he gets 11 or 12 out of it, his enjoyment is increased, not diminished.
When you ask people about their most memorable baseball games, the ones they mention are often extra-inning games. They are not bothered by the increased length of time they spent watching baseball; to the contrary, they are delighted by it. They are baseball fans, after all. They love it. They want more of it.
Recently a friend recalled a favorite game more than a decade later: the second half of a doubleheader between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Florida Marlins at Veterans Stadium in 1998. This was a matchup in a decrepit stadium between two lousy teams—the Phillies finished the year 31 games out of first place, and the Marlins ended 51 games out. But in baseball, a good game can happen anywhere, at any time.
In that midsummer match, the Phillies scored two in the ninth to tie the game at three. The Marlins scored in the top of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth innings, but the Phillies matched them each time to keep the game going, finally winning on an RBI single by Rico Brogna in the twelfth. That’s the sort of back-and-forth scoring excitement that Major League Baseball thinks you would rather not see.
Even for those not attending in person can derive a lot of enjoyment from an extra-inning game. The longer a game goes on, the more crazy things start to happen. Relief pitchers get the rare opportunity to swing the bat. Position players take a turn on the mound as bullpens are exhausted.
One of the best games I ever saw on television was this six-hour, 19-inning affair between the Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds. Again, both teams scored in the tenth, but there the scoring ended for nine more innings, including two pitched by Phillies’ shortstop Wilson Valdez. The building tension and growing weirdness of a game that extends well beyond the normal parameters is part of what makes baseball great. (And if you are awake at 1 a.m. with a newborn baby, as I was that night, the excitement of the game is a welcome respite from the duties of real life.)
Baseball has kept substantially the same rules for more than a century for two reasons: we like them, and they work. In considering the DRIP, Major League Baseball looks to turn its back on the longtime fans who want—get this—to watch as much baseball as possible. In fiddling with the rules, they further alienate these fans by making the record books inconsistent, all in pursuit of the mythical millennial fans who would watch more baseball if only it were faster, shorter, snappier, and more extreme.
There were 73 million tickets sold last season, and the game’s television and Internet broadcasting has never been more profitable. The game works and remains popular. Major League Baseball would be wise to preserve what they have, grow the sport as it is, and leave what is well enough alone.