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October 28, 2008

Prospectus Today

Closer to a Tie

by Joe Sheehan

We've had closers and set-up men, LOOGYs and the occasional ROOGY. So it seems fitting that the commissioner presiding over baseball's era of extreme specialization also is most effective in a limited role: Bud Selig closes tied games.

In a decision that echoes back to the 2002 All-Star Game, Bud Selig suspended Game Five of the World Series indefinitely due to the weather in Philadelphia. He made the call with the game tied at two in the middle of the sixth inning. Due to a rule change enacted for the 2007 season, the game will be resumed from the point of suspension, as opposed to being declared a tie and played from the beginning. While the intention is to play the game tonight at 8:30 p.m., the projected weather in Philadelphia is poor, and most people think there will be no baseball until at least Wednesday night.

Now, let's start with the obvious: last night's game had to be stopped. The weather deteriorated rapidly starting around 9:30 p.m., and the last two half-innings were played in conditions completely unfit for baseball. That they played those innings speaks poorly for both the umpiring crew and the commissioner; had the game not been a World Series game, with the attendant attention from network executives, there is no chance that the teams would have taken the field for the top of the sixth. The problem with that, of course, is that a game of this importance should have a higher standard, not lower, for the conditions of play.

For example, in the fifth, Pedro Feliz popped a ball to the right side of the infield with first and second and one out. The infield fly rule was never called. Crew chief Tim Tschida said, "The infield fly rule requires the umpires' judgment to determine whether or not a ball can be caught with ordinary effort, and that includes wind." So the determination was that no infielder could make the play with "ordinary effort." If the weather won't let you call the infield fly rule, you shouldn't be playing an elimination game in the World Series.

Of course, had Selig and Tschida-the commissioner has ultimate authority in the World Series-elected to put the tarp on before the sixth, the prospect that it would never come off was apparent. By rule, a game called by rain after five complete innings (or 4˝ if the home team leads) is an official game, and the team leading is the victor.

After the game, Selig imperiously declared that he would simply not have allowed that. "We would have gone into a rain delay," he said, "and that rain delay would have lasted until, weather permitting, we could resume the game. And that might be a day or two or three or whatever."

It was never made explicit, but Selig, in his post-game answers, made it clear that he would have invoked the best-interests clause to prevent a World Series game from being declared over, official, or decided, before nine innings were played. He's absolutely right about this. Yes, it is a case of tearing up the rule book, but the postseason is not a game in June. Games should be played to their completion, and I suppose the only oddity is that we've never before had this situation arise, where a game perhaps would not have been played to its completion had circumstances fallen a certain way. Having discussed the situation Saturday and yesterday with both Rays president Matt Silverman and Phillies GM Pat Gillick, Selig correctly concluded that the World Series is a special case with special rules. I agree with all of this.

So why play the top of the sixth? Selig, Tschida, and Tim Welke all praised the Phillies' grounds crew for their management of the field up to that point, and apparently everyone involved believed that they could keep the field in playable condition. However, doing so for the bottom of the fifth and the top of the sixth entailed delaying the game twice while they worked on the field, and when the Phillies didn't oblige in the sixth, the way the Rays had in the fifth, with a pitching change, the field conditions became a joke. There was standing water throughout the infield. There was a sty around second base. The pitchers' mound and the batters' boxes were playable, which as Tschida and Welke pointed out, is the standard they use, but that standard failed last night. The top of the sixth inning never, ever should have been played as long as Selig was aware that not playing it was not going to result in a rain-shortened decision.

When the Rays scored, that allowed Selig to avoid invoking the best-interests clause. Unfortunately, it creates the impression that Selig wanted just that outcome, and allowed the game to continue just long enough to take him off the hook. That may be unfair, but there's no way to avoid that impression.

Starting the game was the right idea, as the forecast for the evening was for light rain, up to a quarter-inch, but nothing that would force a postponement. Selig's position that a World Series game must go the distance is also correct, and frankly, one I admire. The problem is simply the sixth inning, where Cole Hamels was asked to pitch in a storm, in which the Phillies were asked to defend in one, and where the game changed, perhaps irreparably, when there was no chance it would be completed that evening. You can argue that both teams played in the same conditions. On the game-tying hit by Pena, the field conditions affected both Pat Burrell, who couldn't charge the ball, and B.J. Upton, who rounded third like he was feeling for the mines. Tschida made the case that the situation was fair to all: "It turns out we have pretty identical line scores at the end of the day, and it didn't seem worse for one team or the other. What's fair is fair."

That is where things fall apart. Tschida is absolutely wrong about this. What happened last night was completely unfair to the Phillies. The line scores are not identical. The Rays have six numbers next to their name, the Phillies five. The Phillies had to pitch and play defense in the worst of the weather, and the Rays didn't. That aspect of last night, the timing of the decision to call the game in the context of what Selig said afterwards, is the big mistake.

As I mentioned yesterday, in the limited time I've been around him, I've grown to like Charlie Manuel, who's just a good guy who likes his job, loves baseball, and is open and accountable. Last night, Manuel would not speak to the media at all. That, as much as anything else, tells me that last night's decision was a mistake. If Manuel didn't want to address it, couldn't bring himself to talk about the decision with the media, his silence speaks volumes.

The decision to play the top of the sixth was the worst we've seen in a long time, and whether you choose to blame Tschida or Selig, the truth is that both are at fault. Their optimism about the field conditions and their faith in the Phillies' grounds crew is noble, but misplaced. The timing of their decision favored one participant over the other, and was an advantage that, in retrospect, did not need to be conferred.

So, now we wait. It's about 12:30 p.m. ET as I wrap this up, and it's pouring. This game will probably be held for Wednesday night, and note the word "night." Selig, in perhaps his most disingenuous moment of the entire press conference, said, "These fans obviously came and bought tickets for a night game, so they deserve to come back and see a night game." Right. Because the scheduling of World Series games is done taking into account, first and foremost, the convenience of the attendees. Because fans have demanded 8:30 local time starts for years. Because when World Series games are played in the Pacific time zone, MLB gives a rip about those people's work schedules.

The game will be a night game because Fox says so, and for Selig to sit there and say what he said insults everyone's intelligence. Just be honest and say that the game will be a night game because MLB doesn't control its own scheduling. As if the city of Philadelphia, and people holding tickets-and for that matter, how exactly do the Phillies determine who gets back into the park?-wouldn't be perfectly happy with a 7 p.m. start. Or 2 p.m. Or 9 a.m. That comment, to me, was the worst thing said last night, and goes a long way towards letting the world know who runs baseball.

Late word from MLB is that tonight's game is cancelled. This is the right decision under the circumstances, and MLB is correct to call it early, rather than get people to the park for no reason. The logistics of staffing, stocking, and filling the park for the remainder of the game may also require a bit more time, and this buys them that.

The effect on game play is unclear. Both teams now essentially start with completely clean bullpens. What we don't yet know is whether a potential Game Six would be played Thursday or Friday, and that knowledge may affect usage. Pushing Games Six and Seven back would also open up the possibility that Cole Hamels could start the first on short rest or the latter on full rest.

We'll update the situation later, through Unfiltered, as more information becomes available.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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