Boy that was, above all else, endlessly entertaining! Well, at least entertaining, if not anything close to endless, thanks mainly to a hair-brained IBAF rule destined to kill the possibilities of thrilling marathon extra-inning pitching duels. Just when you begin to think that the “one-loss-and-out” structure or the “all games are must wins” flavor of international Olympic-style baseball is about the most entertaining sporting spectacle ever invented, then they start proposing new ways to make such nail-biting experiences even more heart-rending. Enter IBAF president Harvey Schiller and his “why didn’t they think of this before” extra-innings free base runners rule. Both Thursday evening matches (Cuba-USA and China-Taiwan) were not only rife with the expected decades-old Cold War political symbolism. But both also invoked the dreaded tie-breaker “innovation” (we will call it the Schiller Rule) before peaking with equally bizarre jerry rigged conclusions. And both at the same time went a long way to uncovering all the flaws in the latest unnecessary Olympic tinkering schemes.
I won’t recap here the details of Cuba’s thrilling if unsatisfying 11-inning 5-4 victory over Team USA. Those details are located in my longer essay and in the other reports and box scores found on www.baseballdecuba.com. The bottom line was that manager Antonio Pacheco better exploited the two-on and none-out scenario than did USA skipper Davey Johnson, but only because Cuba’s Michel Enriquez executed under pressure (a two-run single to right) and American batters did not. In post-game comments Johnson levied criticism at Pedro Lazo for supposedly purposely throwing at batter Jayson Nix (Nix was attempting to sacrifice and the ball hit the bat and not the batter). Johnson’s anger might have been better directed at the new IBAF rule, which prevented the exciting game from being played to its conclusion under normal baseball circumstances.
As LA Times baseball writer Kevin Baxter cogently commented in an email to this writer earlier today, the worst feature of the rule is that it rewards teams not capable of stringing together a series of hits: one solo and otherwise harmless blooper after the tenth frame can prove a vital game-breaker. And more ridiculous still, we already saw last night that the main intention of the change will likely not be served. As usually happens when non-baseball people start meddling with the game’s sacred structure, simply because there is a dollar to be made or an entertainment opportunity to be served, what results is not only non-baseball but non-practical as well. The tie-breaker was supposed to prevent lengthy schedule-wrecking contests, but yesterday’s maiden China-Taiwan experimented lasted four hours and twenty minutes before it was concluded. It took nearly forty minutes to complete the twelfth inning with its orgy of nine eventual runs. In the same time-span three or more tense scoreless innings could likely have been played. All we have done here is to replace a potential string of three-up and three-down rapid-fire frames with a marathon inning or two of sacrifice bunts, pitching changes, pinch runners, lengthy ball and strike counts, and desperate managerial strategies that remind us more of Sunday afternoon picnic softball than slick competitive tournament baseball. One inning of this type (as in the Cuba-USA match) is unsettling enough in its obvious unfairness by normal baseball standards; but two or more innings (the endless China versus Taipei match) can be a virtual dragged-out nightmare. If we are going to have baseball in the Olympics, then let us make sure that it still looks like baseball. Why bother to salvage a game now robbed of its original logic?
If the novel tie-breaking system didn’t toss a large enough shadow over an otherwise delightful day of baseball, there was also the regrettable post-game press conference temper tantrum of USA manager Davey Johnson to contend with. Seemingly somewhat unraveled ny late-inning developments and frustrated by his team’s nerve fraying last-at-bat losses to Korea and then Cuba, Johnson was quick to voice his displeasure with both the tie-breaker format and the bunt-related eleventh-inning injury that cost him second baseman Jayson Nix for the remainder of the tournament. But it was the second matter that usurped most of Johnson’s attention: “I respect the way baseball is played in Cuba, but I don’t like it played that way. I believe in hard-nosed baseball and that’s how I played in my career. But in my wildest imagination, I didn’t think they’d throw it right at my player’s coconut.” The clear message here was that Johnson believe Pedro Lazo was intentionally aiming to bean Nix and thus load the bases with none out. Yet both game circumstances and Lazo’s own immediate reaction (he rushed to the plate to see if Nix was injured by the foul tip that struck his eyelid) argue stringly against Hohnson’s interpretation. It makes no sense to think that the Cubans would elect to put the winning run on first with no outs in a sudden death situation. With runs gifted on first and second (via the new rule) Nix squared to sacrifice and Lazo did what any hurler in the big leagues would do: he threw a fastball high and tight in on the batter’s hands to make bunting fairly a difficult task. NBC replays showed the ball clearly struck Nix’s bat before caroming into his face. Lazo and Pacheco quite reasonably were both completely mystified by Johnson’s untoward allegations.
In his own news conference comments Pacheco praised the quality of the American opponents and defended Lazo by noting (somewhat ironically perhaps, given all the hype about Cuban “amateurs” playing USA pros) “we are professionals and we respect the game and the other team and its players.” But it was indeed an unnecessary defense against an unwarranted charge. And a surprising protest, at that, given Johnson’s several years of managerial experience in the arena of pressure-packed international baseball. Johnson’s momentary lapse, more than anything else, may have revealed just how much this game meant to both sides, and just how disatisfying the results under the new tie-breaker regulations proved to be for both teams. In a recorded interview on Havana television Friday morning both Pacheco and extra-inning hero Michel Enriquez voiced strong objections to the tie-breaker. “We may have won,” reflected Enriquez, “but the taste is not the same as with normal victory because this system takes away from the spirit of the game.” Perhaps Johnson might have been better served by aiming some shots of his own at the IBAF rules committee rather than fantasizing about Lazo’s attempts to deck batter Jayson Nix. All Johnson accomplished here was to provide an extra measure of motivation for the defending Olympic champions in the likely scenario of a medal-round rematch. And that was anything but a wise move.