Sunday, June 3, 2018

Foul ball?

With a career in sports writing spanning more than 40 years, I like to think I know a little something about the rules of the games we play.

Well, sure. I grew up watching baseball, football and basketball, so I'm more familiar with those sports than, say, for example, soccer or lacrosse.

And to be sure, I'm particularly familiar with baseball. Growing up, that was THE sport. When I first started writing for The Dispatch, I even carried around a handbook-size copy of the official rules of baseball, published by Wilson sporting goods. I was ready.

Consequently, I thought I knew the game – until Friday night.

I was covering the HiToms at Finch Field in Thomasville. A member of the wooden bat Coastal Plain League (CPL) designed specifically for scholarship college freshmen and sophomores, the HiToms were playing a doubleheader against Gastonia. I was to cover the second game. Both games were scheduled to go seven innings instead of nine, a nod to speeding up a long night when doubleheaders are involved and teams have to travel by bus to get to their next game the next day. Almost all minor leagues observe 7-inning doubleheaders. It makes sense.

Anyway, I arrived at the ballpark at a time when I figured the opener would be close to finished. The trouble was, the first game was delayed an hour by a passing thunderstorm, so when I settled into my seat, the game was tied at 1-1 in the sixth inning.

The HiToms scored three runs in the bottom of the sixth, which I figured would be enough to win. But, baseball being baseball, Gastonia tied the game with three runs in the top of the seventh.

And Thomasville failed to score in the bottom of the seventh, forcing the game to extra innings. Oh, boy. A long night just got longer. My 11 p.m. deadline was in jeopardy.

Except that the game turned to the international baseball rule book, which has a provision for a tiebreaker when a game goes to extra innings.


According to the rule, the team at bat starts an extra inning with runners on first and second base, with no outs. They are considered to have reached base on error, but the so-called "errors" do not count against a pitcher's earned run average, which I guess makes sense. I guess.

As it turned out, the HiToms got out of the eighth inning with no damage, and then scored the winning run in the bottom of the eighth when Gastonia screwed up on fielding a sacrifice bunt. The HiToms won 5-4.

But I'd just seen something I've never seen before. A tiebreaker in baseball. It was like watching sudden death in slow-motion. Let that one sink in for a minute.

On the one hand, this was a good thing. An extra inning game in a doubleheader can have you eating hot dogs in the ballpark at 3 a.m. In theory, you could be be playing a baseball game until tomorrow.

I know. It happened to me. I once covered an American Legion game between Lexington and Concord that went 21 innings.

On the other hand, I think my baseball sensibilities were highly offended. More than 48 hours later, I'm still shouting to myself, there's no tiebreaker in baseball. There's no crying in baseball. C'mon.

I guess I'm just an old baseball purist. My baseball sensibilities have been under assault for decades, starting with expansion (to my mind, there should be only 16 major league teams, eight in each league. More teams just dilute the talent pool. Oh, wait. The talent pool is now worldwide), and continuing with AstroTurf, domed stadiums, interleague play and the designated hitter rule.

There's a lot that's happened to baseball since 1955. I'm not sure all of it is good. Meanwhile, we're playing three-hour games because batters constantly step out of the box after every pitch to scratch themselves, adjust themselves, or admire themselves. Nobody's seriously addressed those issues yet.

On the other other hand (I have three hands), I guess I should applaud the CPL for trying to be innovative. The international league tiebreaker rule (does it apply to Olympic baseball, I wonder?) does speed up the game. The CPL also allows only five warm-up pitches for relievers when entering a game, five warm-up pitches for all pitchers during the two-minute between-inning breaks, and coaches are allowed only six visits to the mound per game. So the CPL is actually a great platform to experiment with improvements.

I'm just not sure a tiebreaker is one of them.

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