Unorthodox Softball-Style Extra-Inning System Announced by IBAF for Beijing Olympic Tournament

IBAF President Harvey Schiiler this week announced adoption of a special extra-inning rule to be employed for the upcoming Beijing Tournament. The new rule is designed to encourage extra-inning scoring and thus prevent lengthy extra-inning games. The change is also evidently designed to mold games into a “made-for-television” format and thus to prevent any marathon games that might interrupt the normal four-games-a-day pool play Olympic schedule. The move might also be interpreted as a ploy by the IBAF aimed at convincing IOC officials that the reinstituting of baseball on its program for the 2016 Games would not entail any difficulties for the modern-era Olympic scheduling format.

The new rule–which promises to avoid long games but at the same time threatens to rob the sport of the thrilling scenario of tense and dramatic pitcher-dominated extra-inning duels–will operate as follows. The opening ten innings of any contest will be played under normal baseball conditions. If a game is still tied entering the eleventh frame, however, the new game-speeding process will be placed into effect. Each team will begin its half-inning with runners placed automatically at first and second bases and no outs. The manager of each club will have the choice in the eleventh frame of sending to the plate (as the inning’s leadoff batter) any player in his lineup; the two runners on base will then be the two men who immediately precede the elected hitter in the batting order. After the eleventh frame, the subsequent batting order will be determined for each team by how the previous inning ended.

This new way of handling extra-inning games will take effect for the first time in Beijing, but the format will also continue to be utilized in all IBAF-sponsored tournaments from this point forward, including the September 2009 Baseball World Cup event scheduled for numerous venues throughout Europe. The new system is also already being tested at the IBAF AAA World Championship matches (Youth Championships) currently being staged in Edmonton, Canada. Schiller, in his IBAF press-release, spoke to both negative and positiive aspects of the nerw rule when issuing the following statement: 

“One of the unique aspects of our game is that it has no time limit. Extra-inning contests can bring about the most exciting results for players and fans, but such circumstances also make it difficult in the context of the Olympic program. Delays cause scheduling and logistical nightmares. Planned security, transportation, drug testing, broadcasts, and entertainment are just a few of the activities that may be seriously affected.”

This new rule designed to avoid lengthy games resulting from balanced competition might suggest parallels with another IBAF regulation (the ten-run knockout condition which halts one-sided matches after seven frames) adopted long ago in the effort to keep tournament schedules from being thrown into chaos by 4-hour contests. But yet there is a major difference here. The ten-run rules ends games where the outcome is hardly in question. The “free base runners” rule takes a toss-up game out of the hands of excellent pitching and thus may well determine a gold medal winner by the most “non-baseball”condition. Free base runners as a solution appears to have all the negative overtones of soccer’s equally unnatural “free” penalty-kicks tie-breaker scenario. 

While the apparent logic of the IBAF position can not be denied, the sleptic has to ask how it has been possible to carry on Olympic-style tournaments (including World Cups, Intercontinental Cups, Olympic Games, and the 2006 MLB World Baseball Classic) with so much success under normal baseball playing conditions that have lasted more than a century (half-century for major international tournaments). Was there truly that much chaos in Sydney, Barcelona, Atlanta or Athens? Is it really worth throwing out the cherished baby (original baseball playing rules) with the soiled bathwater (possible interruptions to television, security or transportation schedules)?

It is perhaps not that far off base here to suggest that the major motivations are strictly financial. Baseball at the international level is now increasingly following the model of the professional sport–a model in which the original game is severely altered in every aspect that might promise a greater revenue stream (designated hitters for more offense, wild card teams for more post-season games and revenues, inter-league play to jack up network television ratings, etc.). As Schiller’s statement clearly concedes, the driving force behind the new format is the necesssity for a smooth-running fixed entertainment spectacle, packaged for television marketing. Any scenario that might be best designed to determine a legitimate baseball champion must this remain secondary to the marketing and promotional interests. Schiiler’s announcement might well be viewed–by those of us who still value the uniqueness of the “timeless” traditional game–as just one more regrettable IBAF move geared to make one wonder if indeed baseball is perhaps not better served by losing its slot (in such a radically altered form) in the Olympic venue.

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