Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Take Me To Your Leader?

When I called it a night last night--about twenty seconds after I saw the tarp on the field in Philadelphia midway through the sixth inning of Game 5--I had a good title for this blog. I was going to call it "The Night Carlos Pena Saved Baseball," celebrating his RBI hit which tied the game and spared Baseball the awkwardness of letting a title-clinching game end in the sixth inning. But I got here this morning--with more than an inch of snow on the roads outside Cooperstown, our version of the storm which curtailed the action in Philly last night--and discovered on mlb.com that Commissioner Bud Selig had let the teams know before the game even started that it would be played to its full nine innings no matter how long it took.

Thanks for letting us know, Bud!

He says he "reluctantly" ordered the game to be started, based on weather forecasts which said things wouldn't get worse. They did get worse, much worse, and by the fourth or fifth inning it became clear that they couldn't play much longer. I was watching the game on Fox, whose announcers dutifully reported what they understood to be the truth, namely that this game was like any other game, where it was "official" after five innings and if it couldn't be finished the team with the lead would win. A friend of mine listening to the Phillies broadcast tells me that their announcers were going nuts, predicting that the umpires would wait until Tampa Bay tied the game before halting play, implying that the teams would stay out there for nine innings even if the field became a lake rather than let their team win a shortened game.

All of those fears and conjectures were moot, as it turns out. Even though it was umpire-in-chief Tim Welke's call to order the tarp put on the field when he did (a few minutes after Pena's single tied the game), it was Selig's call about when the game would be official. He is quoted this morning as saying that if the Phillies had been leading, the game would have gone into "an indefinite rain delay" lasting days if necessary. He cited certain rules, and though his interpretation of those rules is liberal, I don't think anyone can argue the logic of his decision. This is the World Series. All games should go the requisite nine innings. It's only fair to both teams and the fans to give both teams the chance to play regulation games in determining a champion. If the game had to be delayed with the Phillies leading 2-1 after five innings, and it took a few days for the weather to clear enough to continue, that would be the fair way to proceed. According to Welke's statements, the groundskeepers were able to keep the field adequately playable for the first few innings, but from the fifth inning on they began losing the battle against the elements. Indeed, B.J. Upton scoring from second base on Pena's single strongly resembled regular baseball. His stride was a bit cautious but he didn't hydroplane the last 40 feet, and Pat Burrell's throw didn't slip out of his hands and fly into the grandstand. Jimmy Rollins flailed helplessly at a wind-blown pop-up in the fifth inning, but the play looked like dozens I've seen at Candlestick Park on dry days, so it had nothing to do with the rain. No pitches had sailed wildly and maimed batters. So they were justified in continuing until the puddles formed on the infield and the wind increased in the sixth inning.

Still, wouldn't it have been nice for Commissioner Selig to order an announcement made to the crowd at the start of the game, simply saying, "Play will continue tonight as long as it is feasible. If nine innings cannot be completed tonight, play will be halted and resumed on the next night when weather permits. No matter who is winning, the game will not be considered complete until nine innings have been played. Do not panic if your team is losing in the fifth inning and the sky is falling." Would that have been so tough? We're told today that the teams knew this was the case. The crowd didn't know. The announcers didn't know, which means nobody watching or listening to the game at home knew.

To put it another way, way more than 99% of baseball's constituency had no idea of the conditions under which the potential title-clinching game was being played. Can anybody think of a reason why Selig chose not to inform baseball fans around the world that an extreme interpretation of a new rule (enacted just two years ago) might be in effect? I can't. Why was he afraid of appearing decisive enough to claim responsibility for the conduct of this crucial game? This morning he said of the decision, "It was difficult, but that's why I'm here." Yes, it was difficult to bend the rules, and I give him credit for making the decision that serves "the best interests of baseball."

That's the problem, though. He was thinking of Baseball, MLB, the corporate entity which employs him and which defines his role in making policy and overseeing history. He wasn't thinking of the fans. If he had been, he would have told the fans what he had in mind. We would have been able to watch the game with a clear notion of what we were watching--a portion of a game that might not be decided on this night. We would not have minded. It would have been like a President of the United States, say, telling us, "it really doesn't matter whether we find weapons of mass destruction tonight or not, we're going to war with Iraq." It would have spared us the illusion of thinking that what we were watching meant one thing when it actually meant something else. It would have given us the impression that the man in charge was truly in charge, that he had the courage to tell us what was what rather than waiting until he could no longer keep his policy a secret from us.

Aren't leaders supposed to have the strength to lead and the conviction to trust us to understand policy before it becomes unavoidable? Human beings tend to think more highly of people in power who communicate clearly to us that they have acted decisively, than we do of people in power who avoid communicating to us until circumstances are beyond anyone's control. So, Mr. Selig, next time you change horses in mid-stream, have the common courtesy to bring the rest of us along for the ride. Stop acting like a car salesman who will say anything to get you to buy the product, wait until the deal is signed, and then let you know what the fine print really says. No wonder we don't trust car salesmen--whatever they're selling.

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