Extra inning games will look a lot different in rookie ball this year. MLB announced that they will be testing out a new system in the Gulf Coast League and Arizona Fall League which will automatically place a runner on second base at the start of the tenth inning. The drastic new rule, which has the approval of Hall of Fame manager and current Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, falls in line with Commissioner Rob Manfred’s efforts to improve baseball’s pace of play.
Only, it won’t really change the pace of play at all. MLB is missing the fact that pace of play and game length are two very different things. I’m all for quickening the pace of games, so long as it doesn’t change the actual rules of the game itself. There are plenty of little adjustments that could be made, some of which Manfred has already implemented, and I commend him for that. One of those is limiting the length of the breaks in between innings. Another good thing he did was requiring batters to stay in the dirt area behind home plate for the entirety of their at bat. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as though this was working initially, until umpires decided to stop enforcing it after a few months.
Teams are already limited to one mound visit by a coach or manager per pitcher per inning, but I would also be in favor of limiting player mound visits to one per inning. The catcher shouldn’t be allowed to visit his pitcher for every single batter in the inning. If you can’t get on the same page, that’s just too bad. Making that a rule could shave off ten or more minutes from each game.
Implementing a pitch clock is another idea that’s been thrown around and it sounds good in theory, but I’m not sure it would work very well in practice. Again, this is something that was attempted to some degree a few years back, but it never seemed to be enforced very consistently. A better solution would be to have coaches train pitchers from a young age to get rid of the ball quickly and practice rhythm. It would actually be an advantage to the pitcher, since it would throw some batters off more by giving them less time to prepare for the next pitch. There’s no reason it can’t be done; Mark Buehrle made a career out of it, and if you look at clips from the 70s and 80s, pitchers would routinely get the ball back from the catcher and throw the next pitch within five to ten seconds. As a batter nowadays, you can take a pitch, run to the supermarket, and get back before Pedro Baez or Clay Buchholz throws the next pitch.
The rule changes that the league has been proposing this offseason badly miss the point. Earlier this month, MLB made proposals on two different rule changes, one being the raising of the strike zone and the other the elimination of the intentional walk. Raising the strike zone approximately two inches, as has been proposed, would have more of an impact on the game, presumably leading to an increase in balls in play. While I would love to see fewer strikeouts, I’m not sure if this would accomplish just that or have the adverse effect of causing a spike in walks. Jayson Stark of ESPN notes that nearly 30% of all plate appearances in today’s game result in either a walk or a strikeout, a higher percentage than any other time in MLB history. Besides, every umpire already has their own unique strike zone, so I’m skeptical that veteran umpires would change the way they’ve been calling games for decades.
Doing away with the practice of tossing four balls to the plate for an intentional walk won’t change anything significantly and for that reason, it’s a fairly curious proposal. Stark also points out that intentional walks only happen once every 2.6 games on average. That means this new rule would eliminate one whole minute every two and a half games. That’s one entire minute. Every two and a half games.
Both of these proposals will need to be approved by the player’s union, but if MLB is serious about cutting dead time out of games, this will not solve anything. Nor will tinkering with the extra inning rules. Before you panic, the extra inning modifications are not going to be implemented in the major leagues, just the lower minors. Since it will only be implemented in the minor leagues, it does not need approval from the player’s union. However, the pessimist in me knows that there’s a possibility the rule gradually works its way up the levels of the minors until MLB adopts it.
That would be a real shame. It won’t have any effect of the majority of games, but the ones that go into extra innings are usually the most interesting and most compelling to watch. Torre says that in the event of an 18-inning game, “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch.” Well, if managers are so concerned about that, maybe they should manage their bullpen better, instead of using five different relievers to get three out in the seventh inning. True baseball fans love the intensity and strategy that extra innings provide, and to mess with that would be inconsiderate of the sport’s fan base.
I’ve been following sports for as long as I can remember but until this year, that connection was limited to watching games on TV, playing video game simulations, and tracking statistics. The closest connection I had was playing sports myself and to professional sports, watching from the stands. Though I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about the history and current state of the sports world, I never before had the inside access to professional sports that interning for the Rockland Boulders would give me.
Before the 2016 season, I’d attended plenty of Boulders’ games since they’re the only pro sports team that plays in my home county of Rockland. It’s a lot more convenient than spending the time and price required to go see a game at Citi Field or Yankee Stadium, as much as I love visiting those stadiums. The Boulders belong to the Canadian-American Association (Can-Am League), an independent minor league consisting of three teams each from Canada and the northeastern United States. Their home field, Palisades Credit Union Park, is as beautiful a stadium as you’ll find in minor league baseball, distinguishable by its unique short porch in right field and Rockland’s own version of the Green Monster in center.
The best part of interning for the Boulders was having the feeling as though I was a part of the team. Following a team for an entire season, and spending a great deal of time during games right next to the dugout, is a different sort of dynamic than watching from afar. I, along with the other interns who were able to stay until or near the end of the season, were able to appreciate being a part of a championship run and what it meant to get to that point.
The intensity level was incredible towards the end of the season, when the Boulders were chasing that Can-Am League title, which would have been their second. Unfortunately, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but Rockland did reach the final and deciding game of the season, which is a big accomplishment. This was despite some injuries to key players and two of the team’s top starting pitchers having their contracts purchased by the Arizona Diamondbacks. On top of that, the Boulders found themselves on the brink of elimination multiple times. In the first playoff round, Rockland fell behind two games to none against the Quebec Capitales in a best-of-five series, but battled back to sweep the next three at home in dramatic fashion. In two of those three games, the Boulders lost leads late, only to win on walk-offs. The first of those was an epic 16-15 slugfest in which the Boulders led going into the ninth, gave it up, and then won it on a walk-off home run. Two days later in a do or die Game 5, third baseman Mike Fransoso drilled a 9th inning one-out hit into the right center field gap to win the series and advance into the championship round, upon which the whole ballpark went nuts. I’ve witnessed countless walk-off hits, game winning drives, and buzzer beating shots over the years, but those amazing postseason comebacks will forever be engrained as some of my favorite sports memories.
Being at Palisades Credit Union Park every day had a lot of added perks to it. One of the cool things about minor league baseball is that the really good organizations go the extra mile to enhance the fan experience and add extra entertainment value to the game. In the middle of the season, world-renowned aerialist Nik Wallenda high-wire walked across the stadium, and I had the honor of helping support the wire. We also had guest appearances by famous sports figures like Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Bruce Harper, and Sgt. Slaughter. In small minor league ballparks, the fans often get a chance to meet and greet these stars.
Of course, one of the staples of the Rockland Boulders’ fan experience is the Bread Race, run at the end of the fifth inning every game. It’s similar to the mascot races done by teams like the Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers, but the crazy, random things that often happen to the mascots in the middle of a race keep it interesting each game. These include, but are not limited to, getting attacked by Godzilla, stuck with a lightsaber, or clotheslined at the finish line.
From a baseball sense, I got to witness my fair share of special games, like when teams from Japan and Cuba came to Rockland. The Japanese players comprised an all-star team from the independent Shikoku Island League Plus, and as someone who is fascinated with different cultures from around the world, it was a wonderful experience to witness my first international baseball game.
When the Cuban National Team came to Rockland it was special not only on a Cam-Am level, but also for baseball on a national level. As the United States and Cuba only recently improved relations with each other, this series marked the first time the Cuban National Team came to the United States since they played exhibition games against the Baltimore Orioles in 1999. The stadium was packed for all three games, which provided a great opportunity to draw attention to the Boulders both locally and nationally.
Above all, working at the ballpark helped me view sports in a whole different light. It’s easy to root for certain players from a distance, but being around a team makes you realize how much work is put in for athletes to get where they want. What I like about independent baseball is that the vast majority of players have a true passion for the game of baseball. Many are vying for a shot in a big league organization, like Stephen Cardullo, a former Boulder who played for the Colorado Rockies last year. Another notable player who played indy ball in 2015 has become a big league star – Rich Hill. Success stories like those are proof of the talent level present on many independent league ballclubs.
While I didn’t get a ton of chances to speak with the players, there were a few Boulders players and coaches in particular who I’ll always have great respect for, as they would always stop to talk to us interns and showed us a tremendous amount of respect. It might not sound like much, but it’s something I greatly appreciated.
Last season was a truly valuable experience that hopefully can lead to more opportunities like it. Not only did it present a new career option for me, it also gave me so much more insight to the professional sports world, something I’ve been intrigued by since I was born.