“You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”
“When rain interrupted matters for an hour and a quarter in the third, with the Cardinals ahead, 4-0, the bleacherites set up a chant of ‘Rain! Rain! Rain!’ hoping for a postponement. This didn’t work, so in the fourth and fifth, with the score now 6-1, the Tigers tried their own methods – long pauses for spike-digging and hand-blowing by the batters, managerial conferences, and inexplicable trips to the dugout, all conducted while they glanced upward for signs of the final and reprieving deluge.”
––Roger Angell, The Summer Game
Angell’s passage describes Game 3 of the 1968 World Series, where the precipitation had drastically altered the dominant strategies of both teams. The Cardinals, in a hurry to complete five innings, saw their odds for winning paradoxically increased with every out they gave away, while the Tigers, while in the field, had every reason to run the score up to a million to one and make fools of themselves in the process, as long as they failed to record an out.
1968 wasn’t the only year to see raindrops ruin a playoff game. The Braves led the Cardinals 1-0 in the first game of the 1982 NLCS, and were three outs from an official game, when the umpire called the game. They started over the next day, and the Braves ended up being swept. It wasn’t until 2008 that baseball finally decided to resume postseason games at the point of their postponement. Regular season games, however, are still bound by Rule 3.10 and the five inning rule, even those that have playoff implications.
The letter of the law is as follows:
3.10(c) The umpire-in-chief shall be the sole judge as to whether and when play shall be suspended during a game because of unsuitable weather conditions or the unfit condition of the playing field; as to whether and when the play shall be resumed after such suspension; and as to whether and when a game shall be terminated after such suspension. He shall not call the game until at least thirty minutes after he has suspended play. He may continue the suspension as long as he believes there is any chance to resume play.
Ultimately, this rule poses three problems.
1. Things that happened are undone. While realizing that nothing is entirely within our control, and that no statistic is ever really free of context, the erasure of official play from the record books has always been a troubling concept to me. We can all admit that it’s extraordinarily unlikely for a milestone or a record to be washed away in a four-inning game, we must also admit that it’s possible. What if a pitcher were to strike out the first twelve batters of a game and then never see that game’s conclusion? What if Al Newman’s sole home run had been rubbed from existence? These are things that happened; to claim otherwise is illusion. Regardless of whether statistics are being used for prediction or recording, we should take into account the things that happened, at full competition during the regular season, on the field of play.
2. Unfortunate strategies are introduced to the game. The 1968 World Series is a mild example of this. But for a manager who is willing to throw down all decorum for the sake of a win, these silly stratagems can easily become extreme. With a time limit imposed by an incoming storm and no incentive to progress the game, a defending team can simply attempt to refuse outs, whether by dropping every ball or failing to throw strikes. The winning team’s logical response, then, would be to intentionally swing and miss at every pitch, in order to put themselves out as quickly as possible. This encourages the losing team to not pitch, delaying by every conceivable means. It’s an ugly situation, which can only be righted by an umpire willing to take the pace of the game into his own hands. And though most of us would be in favor of this, especially to avoid such embarrassing television, it brings about one final concern.
3. The umpire’s decision to cancel or postpone a game is ultimately subjective. One of the greatest things about baseball is its relative objectivity. Football has its phantom holding calls and fumbles at the bottom of the pile; basketball has the foul call, the definition for which seems to alter depending on the fame of the player with the ball. In comparison, baseball is scientific and rigorous; it has lines for fair and foul, a strike zone that can be measured, tags that are either applied or not applied. And while one could (and probably should) argue that the game has been slow to use technology to improve the precision of these aspects, they are already relatively precise. It’s dubious, then, to have the fate of the game decided on one man’s measurement of “wet”. It’s not that this is a matter of corruption; it’s unlikely that an umpire would use a rainout to create a desired result any more than he would his strike zone. But it is a matter of precision; calling a game is a big deal, even bigger than ensuring a ball is a home run, and it would be nice to have data, rather than opinion, driving the decision.
Are there solutions to these qualms? Perhaps not strong ones. Rain and postponement are inevitable, and games difficult to reschedule. One can hardly blame owners for lack of excitement over completing the last two innings of a blowout game, nor the players uneasy about finishing a 1-1 nail-biter twelve weeks later, the crescendo of the game long since dissipated. Perhaps a continuation would be forced only when a game had a significant enough affect on the playoff expectancy of one or both teams, to avoid any unbecoming baseball behavior.
The subjectivity, however, I believe can be handled. We have tools for measuring the amount and rate of precipitation, and a baseline for “unplayable weather” could easily be discovered and established.
There is one solution, already slowly on its way, that will render the entire conversation moot: thirty retractable roofs. The future is no longer jetpacks, my friends.