Major League Baseball officials met yesterday (January 29) to adopt several rule modifications for the second edition of the World Baseball Classic, and what they have come up with carries some loud echoes of baseball’s other top “world championship” event–the one staged under the Olympic banner last August in Beijing. Foremost among the modifications is the one putting in place a “sudden-death” extra-inning rule to prevent lengthy tie ball games that stretch out fixed television schedules and wreck havoc with tournament administration. Under the Beijing-style format the thirteenth inning of a tied game would begin with runners automatically placed on first and second bases and the original batting order remaining in tact. (In the Olympic tournament this rule was put into effect in the top of the eleventh inning, and managers were allowed to readjust the spot in their batting order where they wished to start the inning, once the unorthodox tie-breaker went into effect.) Whether or not this baseball-unfriendly scenario will be utilized for the championship game in Los Angeles is still under review and discussion by the WBC committee.
As this author wrote at length during the Beijing tournament, this intended game-shortening rule may be a necessity for international tournaments–events designed for television presentation and featuring several games daily. Yet it does hold a sour taste for baseball purists who have always found the “timelessness” of the sport to be its most special and endearing feature. It also must be noted that when the tie-breaker scenario came into play during several contests in Beijing it hardly seemed to function as originally designed: to speed up extra-inning contests by manufacturing a hasty resolution through gifted rather than hard-earned runs. Managers adopted numerous delaying strategies to manipulate the rule; the first batter was regularly walked to load the bases and thus set up force outs at any base, and numerous pitching changes and managerial mound visits then normally ensued. The inevitable result of such strategies was that one extra inning played under the new rules often dragged out as long, or longer, than several frames played under traditional baseball regulations. And none of the managers (winners or losers) seemed particularly pleased with the outcomes that resulted–especially USA skipper Davy Johnson after his team fell to heated rival Cuba in the first testing of the revolutionary format.
Other rule modifications will likely prove less controversial, although some seem to take away from the original spirit of the diamond sport. The pitch count limits in effect for WBC I will now be upped slightly: 70 (from 65) total pitches allowed to any hurler in Round One, 85 (up from 80) in Round Two, and 100 (up from 95) in the semifinals and finals. The wording of the new regulations also seems to suggest that these will now be strictly “per-game” limits, and thus that an opening round pitcher (for example) will not be restricted to only 70 tosses for the entire round. This last matter is not entirely clear in the MLB press release as originally worded. The pitch-count limits were supposedly adopted in 2006 to protect the arms of big league hurlers who were not yet in mid-season form; however, the rule impacted most heavily on the staff of Team Cuba, whose ace closer Pedro Lazo was not available for use in the finale. (Cuba would likely have thrown Lazo into almost every tight game had the rules allowed this).
One other pitch-count rule will be an entirely new innovation for this year’s version of the Classic. Since this time around the two semifinal matches in Los Angeles will be played on consecutive days–rather than on the same day, as was the case in 2006–no hurler throwing more than 30 pitches in the semis will be allowed to return for the finals. This rule has been adopted to take away any advantage that might accrue to a team winning the earlier semifinal match and thus enjoying an extra day of rest before the championship game.
A couple of other modifications seem to forebode less dramatic impact. The current MLB rule of video replay will be in effect, which means that umpires will be allowed to review certain “boundary calls”–especially home run balls near a foul pole, apparent home run balls that graze the top of the fence, or possible fan interference on what might appear to be home run balls. Also, first and third base coaches will be required to wear protective head gear (batting helmets) as a safety measure, and teams will now also be required to announce their starting pitchers one full day in advance. (Regarding the later issue, during previous IBAF international championship tournaments such as the World Cup, Olympics, and Intercontinental Cup, managers were allowed to announce starters–at the same time as the remaining lineup–as late as one half-hour before the opening pitch.)
Despite the non-traditional elements in several of these rules (especially the tie-breaker system and the artificial pitch-counts), fans are likely in store for large doses of thrilling baseball action when national teams of the world’s top baseball countries square off in early March. It is hoped in this quarter that MLB officials will resist any attempt to cheapen the grand finale with their thirteenth-inning rule that might well ruin a perfect climactic pitchers’ dual for the expediency of pre-arranged network television schedules.