America’s pastime is back in 2021 with a full 162-game schedule on deck. Opening Day has come and gone, fans are being allowed back in ballparks and Major League Baseball is easing COVID-19 restrictions as more players and personnel get vaccinated. Overall, baseball looks like it will move forward mostly unimpeded by the virus. There is, however, one lasting scar left on the game, the runner-on-second rule.
MLB instituted the rule change at the beginning of last season’s 60-game, virus-shortened season to prevent games from going too far into extra innings. The rule was justifiable last season, with teams being short staffed and MLB needing to ensure the completion of their abridged schedule. The rule places a runner on second base to lead off each half-inning beyond the ninth, and it dramatically decreased the amount of games played beyond 10 and 11 innings in 2020. It was something baseball fans tolerated last year due to the extraordinary circumstances, but surprise, it’s back for 2021.
It’s more of a confirmation of doubt rather than a surprise, as MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has been trying to mold the game to his liking since he took the job in 2014. Since that time, there have been several proposed rule changes aimed at “speeding up the game” and cultivating “more action” in baseball.
Rules such as a pitch clock or electronic strike zones have been floated, and even tested in the minor leagues. While baseball has been able to stave off other changes, the runner-on-second rule is MLB’s first institution of such a rule that dramatically alters the game of baseball. The point of the sport is to get runners on base and bring them home. Scoring runs is not meant to be easy and teams with fewer power hitters often have to string together multiple base-hits to plate a runner. Now though, teams are given free runners in scoring position for each extra inning they play.
Are we going to start placing football teams at the 50-yard line to start each overtime possession? Or let basketball teams shoot free throws to decide extended contests? You see my point.
The rule is horrible for baseball and succumbs to the mindset that people don’t watch because “it’s boring” or games take too long. Phrases like these get thrown around a lot, but they’re not rooted in fact. If you think baseball is boring, don’t watch it. MLB should not be altering the fabric of the game in an attempt to make non-fans tune in.
When it comes to game length, an average nine-inning MLB game in 2020 lasted three hours and seven minutes. The average length of an NFL game, just over three hours. Yet NFL commissioner Roger Goodell isn’t trying to cut down game times in his league. By no means is Goodell the standard at which sports commissioners should be measured, but compared to Manfred, Goodell looks like a genius. Attempting to end games before they reach the 12th inning or longer flies in the face of baseball, many of the most exciting games I’ve seen have gone 16 innings or more, and that’s the beauty of the sport. There’s no clock and you can’t just sit on a lead until the game ends. You have to go out there and finish your opponent off, and on the flipside, the trailing team always has a chance. It used to not be over until the fat lady had sung, but Manfred is turning out the lights and playing her off before she can even grab the mic.
I’m not opposed to rule changes in baseball, or sports in general, but they have to make sense and keep the overall integrity of the game intact.
Changes such as removing the “take-out slide” at second base or not allowing baserunners to run through catchers with the ball at home have helped decrease injuries while still keeping the spirit of the game. Gifting teams free runs because you don’t think people want to see extra innings doesn’t do that. It is detrimental to the game and what it stands for. Ultimately, that’s why this rule was instituted, game brevity. Manfred and Co. have been under the impression that baseball fans don’t want to watch 16-inning plus games, and they may not be totally wrong. Surely, some people will turn off the TV after the 13th inning, especially if they don’t care about either team, but Manfred doesn’t understand that catering to casual viewers who “want more action” undercuts the point of baseball and spits in the faces of lifelong fans like myself.
The term “action”, when it refers to baseball, is a subjective term. A casual fan may define “action” as a home run or a bases-clearing double, but what about the small battles that take place pitch-to-pitch that lead up to those points?
Is watching a pitcher and batter battle both mentally and physically not enough “action” for Manfred? Apparently not. It’s been obvious that he lacks respect for and understanding of the game since his abysmal handling of the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal in 2020. The Astros blatantly and unapologetically violated one of the most sacred rules in baseball all the way to a World Series title. For that, Manfred came down hard on Houston, giving out no punishments whatsoever to any players involved. When asked if he would take away Houston’s cheated championship, he said there was no point. Referring to the World Series trophy as just “a piece of metal,” and implying that it has no real meaning. To hear the commissioner of one of the oldest sports in American history essentially call the World Series trophy worthless is distressing to say the least, and if the trophy really is just a “hunk of metal,” then I’m sure Houston would have no problem handing it over right? Wrong. Of course, Houston would want to keep their hardware because it means something. It goes to show just how out of touch Manfred really is, and how little respect he has for the game.
The hope here is that since the 2021 season will surely see some effects from COVID-19 – the Nationals vs. Mets Opening Day game was postponed thanks to the virus – that the rule has been kept for that reason alone (seven-inning doubleheaders have also stuck around) and it will be removed once MLB can truly return to normal. I remain pessimistic, as it is clear that Rob Manfred’s goal is to turn Major League Baseball into Backyard Baseball 01. The MLB commissioner didn’t open just Pandora’s box, he tore the lid clean off. Now, it’s up to him to round up all those ghost-runners and stuff them back inside, before the game of baseball is irreparably damaged.