By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
We’re almost at the finish line.
The Buffalo … er, Toronto Blue Jays played their next-to-last game of the regular season in Sahlen Field on Saturday night. For the record, the Jays picked up a 5-2 win over the fading Orioles, who have gone 4-14 down the stretch. The final game will take place Sunday afternoon, and then the Blue Jays will pack up and head, well, somewhere – perhaps Tampa Bay. It won’t be here, though. If the Jays advance, it will be to a neutral site and its accompanying bubble.
In other words, as the song goes, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.
On a national scale, the 2020 season worked out better than most could have believed. A rash of positive tests caused a flurry of postponements, and it was easy to wonder if the effort that went into salvaging even a 60-game season this year. But eventually, the situation settled down and we got to where we are today – with the hard part nearly over.
Meanwhile, in Buffalo, I can’t imagine the amount of work that went into making the Blue Jays feel comfortable. Most of it has been behind the scenes, but the Jays, Bisons, and MLB apparently went the extra mile to make the best of a difficult situation. Sahlen Field has become a television studio in a sense for a couple of months, and it doesn’t look much different than the other facilities that we’ve seen on TV this year. The only obvious difference might be the fact that the bullpens are down the foul lines instead of in their own little areas beyond the fences. But you can only do so much on short notice.
I’ve heard reports that Buffalo may look a little better going up the baseball ladder than coming down it, especially to visiting teams. But a few days in a nice hotel between games isn’t much of a sacrifice, especially during a pandemic. The Blue Jays are the ones who could be complaining, since most of their family members have been images on a Zoom call since July. But they’ve turned their time into a really nice home field advantage, going 17-8 at “home.” Toronto doesn’t reach the postseason without that edge in Sahlen Field.
The games have been a little odd at times, but it’s tough to blame the ballpark for much of that. On Saturday, for example, we had a 1-2-3 groundout (liner off the pitcher, picked up by the catcher, and thrown to first), and a stolen base wiped out by batter’s interference on the catcher. We also had a broken bat off a fly ball twirl through the air and wind up in right field. It’s not a Loud House, it’s a Fun House.
Something borrowed, something new
If nothing else, the year 2020 might be remembered in part as the year baseball had to try some new tactics. The switch was caused by the pandemic, of course, but it was an ideal time to experiment. And after almost 60 games, the results have been revealing.
The biggest one was that the National League adopted the designated hitter rule for the season. Anyone miss seeing pitchers try to hit? I didn’t think so. My biggest problem with the DH has remained the same since 1972: it’s silly for the two leagues to have different rules. Do the NFC and AFC play with different rules? Of course not. It’s become more of a problem in recent years with interleague play, with the visiting team at a small disadvantage because of roster construction. It sounds like the DH is here to stay in both leagues. Good.
The year will have the first 16-team playoff tournament, complete with brackets. Baseball traditionally has been the most stingy when it comes to playoff berths, but this year opted to expand the number of teams because of the strange season. Obviously we don’t know how the postseason itself will work out yet, but fans of 16 teams have been following the playoff picture for the past few weeks. It was a good move for 2020, but I hope the idea doesn’t catch on. Postseason games give an advantage to teams with pitching and power; it’s tougher to manufacture runs against good teams. Therefore the best teams – as defined by who does well in the regular season – don’t always win. I’m hopeful we revert back to the usual format next season, but the lure of extra television dollars has often proved tempting to team owners – even the ones that have to play the most important games of the year in suboptimal – read near-freezing – conditions.
Then there’s the matter of the double-headers in which the games last seven innings. This was done so that the teams weren’t looking at something like seven hours of time at the ballpark between the first pitch and final out during a pandemic. It’s been helpful this season, as the unexpected virus-related postponements have drained some pitching staffs as it is.
It will be interesting to see how the powers that be react to this for 2021. Most teams play day-night double-headers in an attempt to open the gates twice (and not miss a chance to charge twice). Still, that gets to the point that today’s game isn’t played with the idea of having a pitcher on the mound for 18 innings within a span of 10-12 hours. Teams can use an extra pitcher (as a 26th man) during twin-bills, which helps a little. It will be tough to find a sweet spot for compromise there, unless you can convince people that a seven-inning game should have the same price for a ticket as a nine-inning contest.
The extra runner
And speaking of long games, that brings us to the most controversial move of all – at least by baseball standards. The majors adopted a rule this year in which teams start each half-inning in extra innings with a runner on second. This has been in play in the minors for a little while, but this year was a great chance to try it in the majors under these unique circumstances. Again, the teams didn’t want to hang around ballparks for hours and hours while an 16-inning game was taking place. It can be odd to watch at first – a pitcher can give up a single in the bottom of an inning and walk off a loser.
The reaction from the purists over this was swift, and it was loud. It’s not baseball, they said. It’s another example of the “instant gratification” that’s taking over the culture. Admittedly, some of these people thought Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was far too pliable about changes in our society. But they have a point when they say that baseball has done nicely when played a certain way for the past 150 years.
Still, baseball has a problem when it comes to extra-inning games. As has been pointed out, it’s the only sport that sees people leave the building in large numbers when “overtime” arrives. The game isn’t managed any more to consider the possibility of 14-inning games, meaning that too many backup shortstops have been thrust into pitching duties in an attempt to end games quickly. The situation is even more severe in the minors, in which virtually no one – players, coaches, owners, fans, etc. – wants to see a 15-inning contest. Remember, baseball is in the entertainment business.
I smell a compromise in the majors next season. Maybe they’ll wait until the 10th inning is done before adding a runner on second to start the half-innings. Of course, this would apply to the regular season only; the playoffs would be business as usual. If you need a precedent for this, look at hockey. They have five minutes of three-on-three overtime, followed by a shootout. That’s a little too drastic for my taste, but it does produce outcomes and the fans like that. Then at Stanley Cup playoff time, they’ll play all night if necessary to determine a winner.
All of these issues, of course, are above my pay grade as far as decisions are concerned. I merely get to voice an opinion. Still – as this chapter of Buffalo’s baseball history winds down, I have to shake my head at the fact that major league games – ones that counted in the standings and will be put in a record book forever – were played here. I’d have preferred a pandemic-free year instead, but this has been a fascinating consolation prize. It’s been arguably the most unique year for pro baseball in the city’s history, and it’s been nice to be a witness to a little piece (two games) of it.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)