Turn and face the strange: Why MLB’s gimmicky extra-innings rule could be a good thing

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Get to a certain time and place in your life, it’s comforting to know where things are.

Enough’s already been lost. And found. And lost again. Or the other way around.

There’ve frankly been enough surprises.

They generally aren’t that good. It’s why sometimes “pleasant” must be stuck in front of “surprise,” just to head people off, because they know. Or “party” after it because otherwise nobody’d come.

By itself, it’s just chaos.

Like change. You’ve heard change is hard, maybe even know firsthand, for example when you had to stop wearing cargo shorts. Or should have stopped. Change is the more earnest version of surprise. You can think through change. You can accept or run from change. You can see change coming from a good distance. Like a tornado. A bad haircut.

In either case, change is deciding the storm cellar’s not so bad. Unless that’s surrender. They’re close.

When Major League Baseball decided it would force the three-batter minimum, for instance, that was hot-breathed change. Thing is, no one with a splash of self-awareness wants to be the person who hates change simply because it is not what happened yesterday and the day before. The righteous path is to hate something on its merits. The three-batter minimum, for one.

In the pursuit of knowing where things are, no surprises, it would be good to know the games are being decided by players responding to the strategies that decide games. Still, in spring training, I asked a veteran manager, “Am I just being an old guy who hates change or does this rule suck?”

He said, “This rule sucks.”

Which was a relief.

This will sound hopelessly romantic, but I mostly like the game the way it is. I like pitchers hitting. I like long, hot seasons that drill down into your soul. I used to like when they stole bases, when they dared to do that. Upon a hit-and-run, opposite-field single in the playoffs last October I nearly wept. Might’ve been the October before. I miss all the little stuff that’s been swallowed up by a back-leg, batter’s box game. I believe the other game will return one day, that baseball will correct itself.

All of this — the subtle resistance to change, deep mistrust of surprises and aversion to cornered lefty thumbers getting clobbered by right-handed bangers — leads me to wonder why, then, I’m good with turning extra innings into a full-blown pox.

Beginning on July 23, if we’re still thinking about having a baseball season by then, each half-inning after the ninth, during the 60-game regular season, will start with a runner at second base. After that, it’s pretty much a bunting and fly ball-hitting contest.

All extra innings will begin with a runner on second during MLB's abbreviated 2020 regular season, an attempt to curtail exceedingly long games. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)All extra innings will begin with a runner on second during MLB's abbreviated 2020 regular season, an attempt to curtail exceedingly long games. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
All extra innings will begin with a runner on second during MLB’s abbreviated 2020 regular season, an attempt to curtail exceedingly long games. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

That sounds terrible, even worse than what has become the norm, which is inning after inning of batters swinging for the fences because that’s what heroes do. They hit walk-off dingers or die trying. They also, as a result, ensure a second round of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” But, at least it’s not some weird backyard rule that gets everybody home before the streetlights come on. At least it’s not … change.

So, what’s the allure of two teams gifted a man in scoring position until somebody pops up a bunt?

You’re looking at it.

This world, this summer, this championship, this runt of a baseball season with too many toes and a corkscrewed tail. As one ballplayer texted me today, “Hopefully it works out and everyone doesn’t freak — haha,” and the fact is it’s already freaked and it’s gonna freak more and maybe we can’t even fathom the freak that’s coming.

Short of a shutdown, there is no fouling up the 2020 baseball season. There is no change loud or ugly enough that it can’t be stirred into whatever’s beyond July 23. Good players are sitting out. Good players will test positive. Good teams may by August look like nine guys waiting in an Uber line at 2 a.m. A baseball season will never be less important, with any luck at all.

Shorter games will be easier on pitching staffs. They’ll be easier on everyone. There are enough variables as is. More 18-inning games doesn’t have to be one of them.

But none of that is really it, the reason I’m good with a rule that looks and feels out of place, gimmicky even.

I give in to the chaos. Bring all the weirdness, the shortcuts, the freak. Let’s see what it looks like, just for a little while. Let’s welcome change, save our energy for the bigger fights. There’ll be plenty of those.

Who knows. Maybe it’ll even be a pleasant surprise.

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