In consideration of all the harm he’s brought on my favorite sport, I’d say I’ve been pretty lenient with Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred. I’ve acknowledged the positive things he’s done, and given him the benefit of the doubt when he’s made proposals that I’ve disagreed with. But 13 months ago, I drew a line in the sand when Manfred was reportedly considering testing a proposal in the minor leagues: Starting each extra inning with a runner on second base.
“No more benefit of the doubt, no more chances for redemption, no more let’s wait and see,” I wrote. “This is a stupid proposal, implemented by stupid people, for stupid reasons. None of this belongs anywhere near the national treasure that is Major League Baseball.”
But last month, Minor League Baseball announced comprehensive rule changes for the 2018 season. Among them was the decision to place an automatic runner on second base during extra innings.
At this point, I don’t know if it’s worth it to reason against the decision. How can you explain that you shouldn’t just give out free runners? Manfred’s rule is not rational, and there’s not much that can be done about it.
Where to begin? This rule is so clearly awful for so many reasons that it feels gratuitous to explain it. For one, the rule change doesn’t address an existing problem. Are there actually baseball fans out there who are happy to watch entire games, but get bored once extra innings begin? Making extra innings quicker is even less sensible than making the first nine innings quicker — and nobody wants that.
Most of the baseball fans I’ve talked to, in fact, want the opposite: They love long, extra-inning games. If you’re a fan of the sport, how could you not? It’s extra baseball, where the most endearing quirks of the game are forced out into the open for fans’ delighted observation. Position players pitching? The last man on the bench winning it with a big hit? These are the best parts of baseball, not problems.
In addition, it will now be very easy to get a baserunner to third base with fewer than two outs. Winning a game in extra innings will come down to little more than the ability to hit a fly ball deep enough to bring home a runner from third. I can’t fathom how this is more exciting than starting off an inning with the bases empty, as innings have always started. There won’t even be any need for dramatic extra-inning home runs anymore: Who needs a homer when one single can end the game in a flash?
If this is not enough, there’s another problem with the rule. It seems that giving each team the same advantage in extra innings is the equivalent of not giving out an advantage at all. Both teams will get free runners on second base, and both teams’ chances of scoring will increase identically. Thus, every advantage one team gains from this rule will be canceled out by an equal and opposite advantage gained by the other. You might as well grant each team a certain number of free runs every inning. It wouldn’t have any real effect on games, but run production would skyrocket.
I struggle to understand how anyone could judge the rule as acceptable, but there’s more. There’s a deeper issue with this — it just isn’t baseball. I know other countries use this rule and that’s fine, but they have different baseball histories then we do. We’ve played this game the same way for well over a century. And to suddenly impose a rule that fundamentally changes the way an important aspect of our game works? And what’s more, to do it for no discernible reason? How can that be justified?
Manfred’s newest project is the worst of both worlds. It’s just like one of the rules above: It’s not part of baseball, and never should be. But it also has its own distinctly negative effects. It will make the game less exciting and more predictable and will artificially increase offensive numbers. And it will destroy the fun of extra innings — which many baseball fans love.
For some time now, Manfred has seemed determined to change the game of baseball as we know it. I’ve never quite taken him to task for it, but I am now. This proposal does not belong anywhere in the game of baseball. It should be abandoned, quickly forgotten and consigned to obscurity.
James Schapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.