There’s no sweeter phrase than “Play ball!” at this time of the year. For the frozen folks of the Wolverine State and elsewhere in the Rust Belt, the start of spring training games in Arizona and Florida this week means warm weather is a mere two or three months away.
But the past off-season brought the unsettling news that the geniuses of Major League Baseball are willing to tinker with how extra-inning games are played. Joe Torre, MLB’s chief baseball officer, has okayed a plan to let the lowest minor leagues automatically put a man on second base at the start of the 10th inning and thereafter.
Backers of the idea say it’s to shorten games so the teams’ benches and pitching staffs don’t get depleted in a marathon outing.
“It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch,” explained Torre, a former All-Star player and Yankees manager.
Well, I got news for you, Joe. It’s a lot more common for non-pitchers to take the mound in the eighth inning of a 16-3 blowout than in extra innings. Only a few games a year turn into death marches of 15 innings and more, and most bullpens can handle them pretty easily.
The idea of putting a guy on second to open extra innings originated in international baseball competition a few years ago. To which I say: So what? The next thing you know, some Supreme Court justices are going to cite international law in their decisions. (Yeah, some do that now. But not the good justices.)
Anyway, it’s time to stop babying the overpaid ballplayers. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, not one of the Ten Commandments read, “Thou shalt not let a starter pitch more than seven innings.” And a decent middle reliever should be able to be effective for two or three innings. Limiting a strong, young pitcher to a single inning is counterproductive if he’s getting batters out.
It wasn’t uncommon for pitchers to throw extra-inning complete games in the deadball era, but great pitchers could gut it out in modern times, too.
In a classic match-up of two future Hall of Famers, Juan Marichal of the Giant’s and the Braves’ Warren Spahn pitched scoreless ball before Willie Mays belted a one-out homer in the bottom of the 16th inning on July 2, 1963.
Spahn blamed his 1-0 loss on a screwball that “didn’t break worth a damn.” What nobody pointed to was his age. He was only 42 and still had more innings in him.