Don’t mess with extra-innings rule

Commentary

May 8, 1984, was a Tuesday, and 14,000 fans who went through the turnstiles at Chicago’s Comiskey Park to watch a game between the White Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers had every expectation that it would be a routine early-season matchup between two squads destined to be basement dwellers that year.

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

The fans who were there ended up getting essentially two whole games for the price of one.

The score deadlocked at 3-3 at the bottom of the ninth. So, as is customary in baseball, where there are no time limits, the game went to the 10th inning.

And the 11th. And the 12th. And the 13th.

By the time it reached the 18th inning, officials suspended the game, and scheduled it to resume the next day. Then, it went seven more innings, with each team scoring three runs and tying up the score again in the 21st.

A White Sox home run in the bottom of the 25th finally ended it, after eight hours of play.

It still stands as the longest game in Major League Baseball history.

Aside from being drenched in statistics, baseball is also scented in nostalgia, and one of the things that can send its fans into swoony reveries are recollections of tense, extra-innings battles that go deep into the night.

When a game is still going when it reaches midnight or beyond, it becomes less about the subtle strategizing that can characterize the first nine innings than sheer endurance — which team has the deeper bullpen that can prevent the other team from scoring.

And which team, frankly, has better luck.

Extra-inning games also separate the men from the boys among the fans. The diehards stay in their seats for the whole shebang, while the less-committed — or, perhaps, gainfully employed — head for the parking lot (or head to bed if they are home).

Some of the most exciting games of recent memory have been extra-innings barn burners: The seventh game of the World Series last year between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians; the sixth game of the 2011 World Series, in which the St. Louis Cardinals were twice one strike from elimination at the hands of the Texas Rangers and successfully escaped; and the fourth game of the National League Division Series in 2005, in which the Houston Astros overcame the Atlanta Braves after 18 innings and close to six hours.

Now, with spring training starting and exhibition games soon to follow, Major League Baseball is talking about tinkering with the rules to trim the duration of extra-innings games and make them a little more speedy.

Yahoo Sports reported that, as part of an experiment, two rookie leagues this summer will automatically place a runner on second base starting with the 10th inning until the game is over.

College softball leagues have followed this rule, as have some international leagues.

Joe Torre, the chief baseball officer for Major League Baseball and the manager for the New York Yankees in the team’s late 1990s/early 2000s salad days, supports the idea, saying it’s “not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff.”

Not fun for whom?

Reaction from fans has been fierce and negative.

One even insisted on Twitter he didn’t want to raise his children in a world where such a rule was in place.

While that might be a little overwrought, this proposal is a bad idea.

First, games that actually extend much beyond the 10th or 11th innings are exceptionally rare, hence why they are so memorable.

And though Major League Baseball, with justification, is concerned about games taking too long, they need to focus their attention on what happens in the first nine innings — the endless at-bats, the conferences on the mound — than how it unfolds in overtime.

Sure, there are plenty of other things in the world to be outraged about.

But in turbulent times, we cling to reliable and sturdy traditions. Baseball is one of them.

It shouldn’t be messed with.

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