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What the future of free baseball could look like

Home run derbies, bunt offs, and why changing the extra innings rules could be amazing

New York Yankees v Chicago Cubs Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

It was just after 2 am on Monday morning when Chasen Shreve struck out Kyle Hendricks in the bottom of the 18th inning, ending a game that had started over six hours earlier. The players were relieved, the cold and dedicated fans at Wrigley could go home, and the Yankees finally swept the Cubs. On paper, it was an epic finale to a series that had a playoff feel, even though it was early May. In reality, it was a dull, tiring affair that left both teams wiped.

This game was hardly the first marathon in baseball history, but it kicked off a larger conversation about extra innings. Buster Olney wrote a piece about the future of free baseball, where he discusses the likelihood of the league changing the rules to protect players from injury. He also ran a Twitter poll to gauge his audience’s interest in keeping the current state of extra innings versus switching to either a system like the World Baseball Classic or the possibility of ending in a tie after 12 innings. The results were pretty lopsided, with 75% of the 34,000+ participants choosing to keep the game the way it is.

Personally, I’d also like to preserve the current state of the game, because that’s how baseball is played and I respect the history of the sport. It also presents an interesting opportunity for the league. MLB is desperately trying to create stories to attract and retain audiences, but garnering buzz around the 29th game of a 162 game season isn’t particularly easy.

An 18-inning, interleague game between two of the oldest, most storied franchises and the youngest, hottest teams in baseball is a treasure trove of free press. Though a six-hour game will lose the majority of its viewership before it finishes, the coverage it will generate from major networks, internet publications, podcasts, and even local newspapers over the next few days is an easy trade-off. That’s what the league needs—to influence culture on a regular basis.

But, it’s not that simple. Protecting the players is always the main concern for owners, managers, and the MLBPA. If the players put enough pressure on the league to make a change, they will. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at what some of the possible (and not so possible) options are for the future of free baseball.

World Baseball Classic Rules

This year, the WBC introduced some new rules, including a fairly experimental adjustment to extra innings. Starting in the 11th, each inning was to begin with a runner on first and second. The goal is to make games end shortly, but if you’re like me, your reaction was probably something like this: “”

While we can applaud the willingness to test, this rule makes the game too predictable. Every inning will inevitably look the same—sacrifice bunt to move the runners, sacrifice fly to score a run, swing away to try to add some padding. When put into practice in the WBC, that’s exactly how it happened; Puerto Rico punched their ticket to the finals by following this simple formula to beat the Netherlands. It felt manufactured. It felt cheap. It just didn’t feel like baseball. Pass.

Ends in a Tie after 12

Yawn. There is no honor in a tie. Every kid with a whiffle ball bat in their hands knows the old credo, I’d rather lose than tie. That’s why when the sun goes down or mom starts yelling that dinner’s ready in the 13th inning, you find some way, any way, to end it. Which brings us to the next option...

Rock, Paper, Scissors (Best of 7)

Now we’re cooking with gas. It may sound juvenile or even anticlimactic, but a good RPS round is electric. Couldn’t get it done in 11? Throw your best out to home plate and let’s end this thing now. Just picture it: late Sunday night, Didi Gregorius bests Anthony Rizzo in rock, paper, scissors game seven. Imagine how many people would be woken up by neighbors screaming at their TVs. Goosebumps.

Home Run Derby

If no one has closed the game out after 11, send your best home run hitter to the plate. He has 10 outs to win this game for you. Admittedly, not the best idea. The Home Run Derby is always a concern for teams who don’t want to mess up their power hitter’s timing or lose them to the DL because of a bicep strain from over-swinging.

That being said, this idea is amazing. Everyone loves to watch people mash dingers. Back to our scenario: late Sunday night, Yankees beat the Cubs because Kris Bryant can’t match the 21 balls that Aaron Judge sentenced to death as he terrorizes the streets outside Wrigley. Sign. Me. Up.

Bunt Off!

No idea is a bad idea. 11 innings have come and gone and the game remains tied in Chicago. Here come starting pitchers, Luis Severino and Jon Lester, ready to do battle. Each pitcher gets five soft toss attempts to bunt the ball to the mound and get it to stay on. If the ball rolls off the mound and onto the grass, it’s no good. The pitcher with the most balls on the mound wins. If after five attempts they tie, we move to sudden death. Why pitchers, you ask? Position players would have an easier time with the task, so this adds a layer of unpredictability. Bringing starting pitchers back also gives them a way to finish what they started. Will this ever happen? No. Would I watch it? Of course.

We have no way of knowing what MLB will cook up, should this situation arise. All we can do is hope the future of baseball ends with a home run derby and not in a tie.