At the taxi stand outside of Lambert Airport on Tuesday, I met a tall man with a strong New Jersey accent and wearing a Tigers cap. He and his wife were going downtown and asked if I wanted to share a cab. Somewhat unfamiliar with the geography of St. Louis–my hotel turned out to be several miles west of the city center–I agreed.

We got to talking. I told them that I was in town to cover the game for Sports Illustrated and Baseball Prospectus. He told me that he was Sean Casey’s uncle. We had a good conversation about the relative merits of Detroit and St. Louis, the ominous weather forecast, and, of course, baseball. What I remember most distinctly is our conversation about clutch hitting. We shared the opinion that, with a few possible exceptions like David Ortiz, being a clutch hitter is largely a matter of being in the right place at the right time. These guys are professionals. The same man who was a hero one night might be a goat the next, and this has nothing to do with his character, or any of the other things you usually read about in the morning sports pages. All of this from the uncle of a man who is renowned for his clubhouse leadership, his clutch hitting ability, and any other intangible that you might think of.

Sean Casey could have been the hero tonight. Until the bottom of the seventh inning, it looked like he would be. Casey had three hits in his first three at bats, including a home run, and two big RBI.

Instead, he was an innocent bystander as the Tigers self-imploded, standing on first base as Fernando Rodney’s throw sailed over his head–not even Kevin Garnett could have come up with that one–and waiting in the on-deck circle while Magglio Ordonez grounded to shortstop, giving the Cardinals a 3-1 series lead. It would be David Eckstein’s night instead. “He’s the definition of a clutch player,” was the first thing Tony La Russa said of Eckstein in the postgame press conference.

None of this is to take anything away from Eckstein. He had four great at-bats in this game and a perfect night in the field. And suffice it to say there are worse guys to whom the hero torch might be passed. But if Craig Monroe has one less helping of pasta at the pregame buffet, if the wet patch in center field is three feet to Curtis Granderson’s left, if Rodney had taken an extra half-second to steady himself before he threw to first, then the result would have been much different. Instead, Casey’s big night will be reduced to a line in the boxscore, while Eckstein’s will make him a national hero. Well, at least a regional one.

Unless, of course, fate intervenes again, and the Tigers come back to win this series. That isn’t very likely. The circumstances would be relatively favorable for a team down 3-1 in the series–two of the last three games at home, a pitcher whom they’ve already beaten (Jeff Weaver) in Game Five, Kenny Rogers ready to go in Game Six, and the bats looking at least a little bit liver again–if not for one big thing. Chris Carpenter. Even if everything else goes well for the Tigers, they’ll have to beat Carpenter somewhere along the line. While acknowledging that the same pitcher can look very different on different nights–I once saw a game at Wrigley Field where Ryan Vogelsong looked like Roger Clemens–if Carpenter has the stuff he had on Tuesday, the Tigers would be lucky to beat him one time in twenty.

* * *

Carpenter is so important, in fact, that there is one decision that Tony La Russa absolutely cannot afford to screw up in this series. If the Tigers win tomorrow night and the Cardinals head back to Detroit ahead 3-2, La Russa needs to do everything he can to maximize the Cardinals’ chances of winning one of those two games. That means making sure that Carpenter is not matched up against Kenny Rogers, the only Tiger pitcher who–pine tar or no–has shown the ability to dictate the course of the game. If that means saving Carpenter for Game Seven, even when he’d be pitching on full rest in Game Six, then that’s what La Russa needs to do.

Look at it like this. Suppose that, if Carpenter is matched up against Rogers, the Cardinals have a 50 percent chance of winning Game Six, and a 50 percent chance of winning Game Seven. If Carpenter is instead matched up against Nate Robertson in Game Seven, the Cardinals have a 75 percent chance of winning that game, but only a 25 percent chance of winning Game Six. (These percentages are somewhat exaggerated for effect.)

Do the math–or trust us to do it for you–and you’ll find that the former arrangement leaves the Tigers with a 25 percent chance of winning the Series, while the latter gives them just a 19 percent chance. It must be tempting to for La Russa to pitch Carpenter in Game Six, which would necessarily be a Series-clinching game. But it doesn’t matter in what order the wins and losses come–all that matters is that you win one of the two remaining games. The Cardinals maximize their chances to do that by saving Carpenter.

* * *

Let’s hope that tonight’s game, which might have been the greatest Game Four in World Series history, puts to rest this talk about a neutral-site Fall Classic. I will be the first to admit that the public enthusiasm for this World Series has been a little…dampened. TV ratings are down, drive-time radio hosts are looking forward to this weekend’s NFL schedule, and even the blogosphere seems a little bit less rabid than usual.

But let’s not mistake a disinterest in the teams and cities involved in the World Series for the need to tinker with more than a century’s worth of history. The average October temperature in St. Louis is 59 degrees, with average monthly rainfall of 2.81 inches. The average October temperature in New York is 58 degrees, with precipitation of 3.39 inches. How do you think New Yorkers–including my colleagues at NYC-based Sports Illustrated–would react if baseball decided to move the Yankees’ next World Series games to the Tropicana Dome? Would Eckstein’s big hits have produced the same euphoria if half the crowd had been clad in Tiger blue?

The only major American professional sport to play its championship at a neutral site is football. Football is a profoundly different game than baseball. The NFL is a television sport designed for a national audience. Baseball, on the other hand, is a local sport that derives a much larger fraction of its revenues from box office receipts. The potential to see the local team involved in the World Series is a powerful economic driver for home attendance. According to our research in Baseball Between the Numbers, a single postseason appearance results in an extra $30 million in revenues for the team involved. More than that, of course, if the team reaches the World Series.

If baseball is serious about limiting the impact that adverse weather can have on its postseason, there are far less drastic steps it can take.

First, develop a clear and unambiguous policy that all postseason games must be played to completion by picking up interrupted games at the next available opportunity. Part of the reason that MLB was reluctant to start Game Four on Wednesday night in spite of relatively viable weather conditions in the early evening is because nobody was quite sure what would happen if the game were interrupted midway through. Outlining the policy in advance would allow for more aggressive decision-making–the one thing we learned from the 2002 All-Star game debacle is that Commissioner Selig is not very good at winging it.

Second, allow the commissioner’s office to move the start of the game forward by up to two hours given 24 hours notice, and by up to one hour given 12 hours notice. This will require negotiation with baseball’s broadcast partners, but if baseball can complete a labor agreement two months ahead of schedule, then surely it can find ways to satisfy FOX on this issue.

Third, give the commissioner the power to schedule day-night doubleheaders in the LCS and LDS rounds of the playoffs.

Finally, provide the commissioner’s office and the umpiring crew with the joint power to implement “rain rules” prior to the start of any game. “Rain rules” would consist of the following:

  • Between-inning breaks are shortened from 120 sections to the usual 90 seconds. Any missed commercial time would be made up to the sponsor during the next season’s All-Star Game.
  • The seventh-inning stretch is limited to two-and-a-half minutes. If you still want to sing God Bless America, by all means go ahead and do so. But none of the Ronan Tynan, seven-minute remix version.
  • Each team is limited to three mound visits over the course of the game that do not result in pitching changes.
  • If more than one pitching change is made in the same inning, the second relief pitcher is limited to three warm-up pitches.
  • The home plate umpire is given broader leeway to award a strike or ball based on excessive delay on the part of the batter or pitcher, respectively, including superfluous pick-off throws.
  • Finally and most importantly, FOX and MLB should jointly pledge to Americans that under no circumstances shall alternative programming during rain delays involve Michael Rapaport.

Thank you for reading

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