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Yesterday, the Yankees gave up on their bid to get a forfeit of Monday’s game that went unplayed because the Devil Rays didn’t show up on time. Commissioner Bud Selig said that he wanted to see the pennant races and playoff berths settled on the field, rather than through a decision by baseball’s offices.

The Devil Rays, who took their time getting out of Florida, didn’t reach New York for the game because they were delayed by the aftermath of Hurricane Frances. It’s not surprising that a flight would be delayed, what with the hurricane and all.

I’m sympathetic to their plight, and even agree with the idea that games should be decided on the field. But Selig’s comment bothers me. Isn’t the whole point of having a forfeiture rule in place that you want the games to be decided on the field? If you’re a half-game up on a team, with a day left in the season, and want to skip a day to get your rotation right, you could just make up some crazy excuse that involves your families and get away with it. “We were on the team charter bus to the ballpark, see, and we saw this kid by the side of the road, see, so we stopped to help him, see, and he told us his orphanage was on fire, see, and uh, we all got out and helped rescue kids from this burning orphanage for a couple of hours and missed the game. It’s weird that this wasn’t on the news or anything.”

There’s another valid point that Joe Torre made: “The only thing that bothers me about the whole thing is that we were ready to play a doubleheader yesterday. We had our guys out here all day.” And they did. Players don’t like doubleheaders. It’s six hours guaranteed on the field, even if you play hurry-up ball for one of the games, even skipping batting practice, and that means it’s much, much longer than that at the park. There are worse fates, but why should teams be able to inflict that on another team without penalty?

The rule is entirely clear on this. 4.15: “A game may be forfeited to the opposing team when a team (a) Fails to appear upon the field, or being upon the field, refuses to start play within five minutes after the umpire has called ‘Play’ at the appointed hour for beginning the game, unless such delayed appearance is, in the umpire’s judgment, unavoidable.”

The Devil Rays didn’t appear on the field at all. They forfeit.

What’s even stranger is that Selig apparently got on the phone and told the teams to play one game of their doubleheader and that they’d work out the rest later. Technically, 9.04a(6) says that it’s the crew chief’s duty to decide when a game shall be forfeited, not the Commissioner’s. Now, I guess under 4.01, there’s a bit of what happened: “Unless the home club shall have given previous notice that the game has been postponed or will be delayed in starting, the umpire, or umpires, shall enter the playing field five minutes before the hour set for the game to begin and proceed directly to home base where they shall be met by the managers of the opposing teams.”

The Commish can call the home team, twist their arm, and the home team can give notice that the game’s been postponed, but I don’t see where the home team has to comply.

I know that the Commissioner is not going to enforce the rules against a team in a situation like this. For one, the decision favors the Yankees, who look like jerks for even asking that the rules be applied. Ruling in favor of the Yankees would have provoked a storm of public criticism, while ignoring the rules means one cranky guy at Prospectus writes a column. The situation is made worse by the scope of the disaster: all those people who have tragically lost their home…and the Yankees dare to exploit this tragedy? Don’t they have enough wins already?

Here’s the thing, though. First, the Devil Rays should have left sooner. Hurricane or not, they’re under an obligation to show up for a scheduled game. Hurricane Frances didn’t just spring up overnight and threaten the state; they had time to work this out. And if they didn’t, if they decided that family was more important than the game, they should be prepared to take the loss rather than whining about it. You can’t complain that a strike shouldn’t be a strike because you were thinking about whether man’s cruelty to his fellow man is an inherent part of his nature, as tragic as that is, and you shouldn’t be able to get away with a lack of preparation and foresight because there was a disaster in the background.

The rules have to be enforced, or they are meaningless. The forfeit rule is there specifically to encourage teams like the Devil Rays to show up on time not only when it’s easy to do so, but when it’s hard. I don’t seriously expect that this single strange bending of the rules is going to lead to chaos, but it’s another example of intervention by the Commissioner to abrogate the rules when it is popular to do so, and since we’re stuck with Selig for (his) life, it’s another sign that this is going to be a bumpy ride.

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