Extra Effort Made to Speed Up Baseball

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 7 -- The grizzled baseball lifer in Davey Johnson -- and really, would anyone who knows him argue that there's any other side to him? -- bristles at the notion of the gold medal in the Olympic baseball competition being decided on some newfangled rule change designed to get extra-inning games finished in a timely manner and avoid bleeding into NBC's coverage of real Olympic sports.

"Yes," he said bluntly when asked if the rule change offends his baseball sensibilities. "It's something we'll all have to deal with."

What rule could possibly be so offensive? This one: Starting in the 11th inning of a tie game -- as decreed last month by baseball's international governing body -- each half-inning will begin with runners on first and second base, and the manager of the batting team can start the 11th at any point in his lineup.

Dear heavens! What's going to be become of our scorecards?

The rule change, to baseball folks, undermines one of the most fundamental and unique attributes of America's national pastime -- its lack of a clock -- while tricking up and cheapening the ending of a game in the same way penalty kicks do to soccer, or the 25-yard-line overtime tiebreak does to college football.

But to non-baseball-loving folks, which includes just about everyone at the Olympics not wearing a baseball uniform, the rule was designed to "modernize" the game.

"Discussion of ending a game in a timely manner has been going on for years," Harvey Schiller, president of the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), said at a news conference to announce the change. "We must demonstrate to the International Olympic Committee that . . . our sport is manageable from a television and operational standpoint."

This being a critical period in baseball's quest for international acceptance -- the sport was booted out of the Olympics beginning in 2012, but hopes to be reinstated for 2016 -- the Americans, even the traditionalists like Johnson, are willing, if grudgingly, to go along with the rule change.

"If it helps the reinstatement" effort, Johnson said, "they can do it in the eighth inning for all I care."

In fact, when the IBAF announced the rule change, Team USA barely raised a peep in protest, and of the eight countries whose teams qualified for the Olympics, only one -- Japan -- went to the trouble of filing an official letter of protest.

"I don't understand why the IBAF decided it without consulting anybody," Japanese Manager Senichi Hoshino told the Nikkan Sports tabloid in Japan at the time.

Once the shock wears off for American baseball fans, perhaps even the staunchest traditionalists will come to appreciate the strategic possibilities. What is the best plan of attack: putting your eighth and ninth batters on base, with your leadoff hitter at the plate? Or putting your leadoff and second batters on base, with your No. 3 hitter at the plate?

"We'll probably try some different scenarios," said Johnson, whose team was scheduled to play the first of three exhibition games against China on Thursday night, before the round-robin tournament begins on Wednesday.

The trick, Johnson said, is figuring out whether to "play for one run or play for a bunch of runs," and the choice, he said, will depend in part on "what we hear from the scouts about the run-producing abilities of the other clubs."

If the game remains tied after the 11th inning, according to the IBAF's Web site, each team still begins each half-inning with runners on first and second, but the batting order will not be manipulated again. If, for example, the 11th inning ends with the No. 6 batter at the plate, the No. 7 hitter will lead off the 12th, with the No. 5 hitter on second base and the No. 6 hitter on first.

All other "Official Rules of Baseball," according to the IBAF, will remain in effect -- including the "traditional" system of the visiting team hitting in the top of the inning, and the home team in the bottom.

Well, that certainly is comforting.

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