The 2020 baseball season, all 240 characters of it, will show us the difference between change and caricature.
Sixty games is caricature.
Beginning an extra inning with a man on second base is change.
One is a Band-Aid, to plug an emergency. The other is worth studying.
Purists will grow nauseated at the first sight of a man carrying the winning run without having to touch ’em all. That’s fine, but purists don’t pay the freight.
“The only people there in the 15th inning are the Uber drivers and the players,” said Michael Futa, the Kings’ former assistant general manager.
Baseball is a yearly marathon. It shouldn’t be a nightly one.
“What people don’t realize about rules changes is that you can always change them back if they don’t work out,” said Brian Burke, the former general manager of the Ducks. “There’s no harm in it, especially in a season like this.”
You talk to hockey people because they have a frame of reference. They have endured, or were dragged through, drastic change.
Prior to 2004, there were no 2-line passes, games still could end in a tie, and defense was played with vise-grip hands. A skater had to get through layers of human turnstiles to reach the net.
“If you had a two-goal lead in the third period, you could put it in the bank,” said Brian Hayward, the Ducks’ TV analyst.
After the lockout, the league cleaned up the obstruction, allowed the 2-line pass, and installed a shootout. The game lost 60 pounds and gained a new wardrobe.
Speed predominates. Unskilled players disappear. Fans learn the fights weren’t essential. And those who mutter about the shootout stick around to watch it, like everyone else.
“I wavered because I didn’t want a skills competition to decide it,” Hayward said. “But at least there is a result. I still don’t like the fact that it’s a one-on-one competition. With the extra-inning change, teams will still have to execute within the context of the game.”
In 2015-16, the NHL also put in 3-on-3 overtimes, which have become the game’s Space Mountain.
“We’d play Chicago and they’d throw Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith out there, and we’d have (Anze) Kopitar and (Drew) Doughty and Brownie (Dustin Brown),” Futa said. “All that elite talent. You’d sit there and just go, ‘Wow.’’’
Although the designated hitter will be universal, the lefthanded relief specialist must either branch out or go home. Every reliever will have to face three batters.
“Nobody goes to a game to watch seven pitching changes in an inning,” Burke said.
But the extra-inning rule is the most controversial and, maybe, the most beneficial.
Concerned that the bunt has left the game? The new rule may bring it back. A good sacrifice puts a man on third with one out, with several road maps for scoring.
The minor leagues have used “2B10” for two years. Ninety-three percent of their extra-inning games have ended after 10 or 11 innings. But only 56 major-league games got to the 12th inning in 2019, playing it straight.
Is this a cure looking for a disease? Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine anyone growing nostalgic for post-midnight baseball, particularly a manager who has to glue together his pitching staff.
This long intercontinental timeout has allowed everyone to watch old games. Even those who played in the ’80s and ’90s find those games unrecognizable.
“There would be 26 guys in prison if they played today like they did then,” Futa said. “You’d have chalk outlines in front of the net.”
NBC’s Ed Olczyk was on the Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers of 1994. He gathered his sons to watch the replay of Game 6 of the conference finals with the New Jersey Devils.
“We did a little exercise,” Olczyk said. “I said, ‘Watch for five minutes and tell me how many penalties you see that weren’t called.’ After 10 shifts, they counted 15 penalties each. That’s the way it was then. When you went in front of the net, you might as well have an ‘Open Season’ sign on your back.
“But you look at every sport. They’ve all changed, all to the benefit of the offense. Maybe I’d play the 10th and 11th inning straight up and then go to the man on second, but you have to worry about the fan base and the young generation.”
“But the best thing,” Hayward said, “is the competitive balance of the league.”
Hockey has the hard salary cap, also a product of 2004-05, to thank for that. Until baseball faces and solves its inequalities, extra-inning baserunners are just bells and whistles.
Still, they might keep you awake.