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MLB really, REALLY needs to change the suspended game rule

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... because Saturday night’s Cubs/Cardinals game was not optimal for anyone.

Photo by Michael B. Thomas /Getty Images

“If less than 5 innings (or 4½ innings if the Cubs are ahead) are played on this date, this coupon may be redeemed for cash, or exchanged for any ticket of this same price, for a regular season game thereafter, if available. No exchanges or refunds except as above.” — Wording on Cubs rain check from the late 1960s

This language has been on Cubs tickets, and baseball tickets in general, for decades, going back nearly to the beginnings of the game. The five-inning (or 4½ innings, if the home team is ahead) has become a standard that all baseball fans understand.

But when that phrasing was first put on baseball tickets, the game and the business of baseball was different. That was an era before night baseball, before coast-to-coast air travel (or coast-to-coast travel of any kind; no team was west or south of St. Louis), when games were often postponed because of light rain or even the forecast of rain. Single-admission doubleheaders were played to make up postponed games, because games went faster and teams thought back then (correctly, for the most part) that “two for the price of one” was something they could sell more tickets for.

Suspending a game wasn’t even something most baseball teams thought about until the 1960s; when rain (or darkness) stopped play, games were simply ended, if they had gone past the “official” inning marker. This Retrosheet page lists all the suspended games in MLB history. Most of the pre-1960 suspensions were in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, made because of Sunday blue laws in Pennsylvania that prohibited playing baseball past a certain time. There was no game suspended at Wrigley Field until 1966, and that one only because the Cubs and Astros both had to fly to the West Coast for games the next day (it was resumed in Houston because it was the last Cubs/Astros game at Wrigley that year). After a Wrigley game was called for darkness in 1969 when it wasn’t actually dark, the Cubs complained to the league office and it was agreed that Wrigley Field games, in that pre-lights era, would be suspended instead of called for darkness. Here’s a history of all the Wrigley Field suspended games I posted here in 2014.

But times have changed. We now have 30 MLB teams, in cities from all corners of North America (Boston, Miami, San Diego, Seattle). There’s year-round interleague play so scheduling is more difficult, especially when games are postponed. Teams are much more tuned in to player fatigue and off days are cherished by players, who (for the most part) would rather play a day/night doubleheader to make up a postponement than give up an off day.

So the “rain check” language, I think, is somewhat antiquated. In fact, the language on the back of Cubs tickets in 2018 (the last time we had printed season tickets) was quite different (caps as in original, and the same wording was on single-game tickets in 2018):

THIS TICKET CANNOT BE REFUNDED OR EXCHANGED unless an Event does not occur on its scheduled date, is not rescheduled, and a refund is offered in the discretion of Cubs. KEEP YOUR ENTIRE TICKET to receive a refund if one is offered, and refer to www.cubs.com. In some cases, refund or credit may be available only to the original purchaser.

Nothing there about five innings, and the language is much more specific (and legalese) than the one from the 1970s, and the Cubs have “discretion” about whether to offer refunds. Yet, the old “five innings” idea still drives decisions on how to play games under adverse conditions. We saw that in that ridiculous White Sox/Royals game played in a torrential downpour May 27. I wrote about that here last week, and suggested MLB needs to look at their suspended-game rule as a result, because playing in those conditions just to get to five innings with the game tied could have caused injury to players, and was insulting to the paying customer.

There was a similar circumstance Saturday in St. Louis, as the Cubs and Cardinals played their game with a thunderstorm approaching Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The game was about to enter the bottom of the fifth inning when play was halted even though it had not yet started raining. The stated reasons: lightning was reported within 10 miles of the stadium and to allow the grounds crew to cover the infield before heavy rain and wind came and made that task more difficult. That was a good idea. As we saw on the South Side of Chicago last week, if you play through a torrential downpour the field’s going to become unplayable. That’s what happened, which is what allowed MLB to suspend the game even though it had not gone the required five innings.

So really... beyond the “unplayable” part, what’s the difference between that White Sox game and Saturday’s Cubs game? The games were at just about the same point (though the Sox game actually got into the last of the fifth). Which of these two scenarios is better?

  • Sit around for three and a half hours, then resume the game in front of maybe 2,000 fans, play till 1 a.m. and then have players have to return to play 12 hours later, or
  • After perhaps an hour’s delay, allow the game to be suspended, send everyone home around 9 p.m. and resume play at noon the next day?

Obviously, the second one would be much better for everyone. The fatigue of the players on both teams showed in the 2-1 Cubs loss Sunday. More rest would have been the way to do it, I think.

Perhaps you’ll say, “Al, in your scenario the original ticket holder doesn’t get to see an official game.” My response to that: Most of the fans at Saturday’s game, which had an announced tickets sold total of 46,297, left before the resumption of the game anyway and so they didn’t see an official game by their own choice. Further, it’s very likely that a significant portion of Saturday’s crowd also attended Sunday’s game, either Cardinals season-ticket holders or Cubs fans who traveled to St. Louis for the weekend. This type of fandom is far different from the way things were decades ago when the “rain check” language was first put on tickets. Most teams had very few season-ticket holders until after World War II and the number of Cubs fans you’d have found in St. Louis (or any other road city, for that matter) for games in that era could probably be counted in the dozens instead of the thousands.

MLB did it again Sunday night in New York. In the eighth inning of the Yankees/Red Sox game it started raining pretty hard while the score was 8-2 Boston. Sloppy play in heavy rain wound up making the final score 8-5. But why not just suspend the game at that eighth-inning point and finish it the next time the teams play? Most of the fans had departed, and it’s not like the Red Sox and Yankees don’t play each other 100 more times this year. (I exaggerate. But not by much.)

My point: To me, there’s no reason anymore to force games to be played through five innings for “rain check” integrity (or, beyond five innings, to not allow games to be suspended regardless of the score). The idea of teams playing four innings (for example) and then having all statistics washed out if it rains, starting the game over, seems weird and anachronistic. Once a baseball game starts, the stats should count. If there’s one pitch thrown... suspend the game and finish it the next time the teams play. (This would likely almost never happen. If weather conditions are such that a game could be delayed after one pitch, it’s probably not even going to start.) If there are four innings, or six innings, or whatever... suspend the game and finish it the next time the teams play, no matter the score.

I’ve shown above that those who have “rain checks,” at least for the games in St. Louis and New York over this past weekend, didn’t really much care about seeing more baseball once it started raining. I suspect this is the case for many fans these days. People’s lives are different than they were back in the day when folks lived close to stadiums and rode the streetcar or public transit to the ballpark. Today, many fans live an hour’s drive away from their favorite team’s park and/or work different hours than the traditional “9-to-5” job most people had years ago.

Further, of the 30 MLB parks, 13 of them are mostly unaffected by this, either because they have roofs (Tampa Bay, Toronto, Houston, Seattle, Texas [in 2020], Miami, Milwaukee, Arizona) or are in California where rainouts and rain delays are rare (Oakland, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego). So only a little more than half the existing ballparks even have to worry about this sort of thing.

Suspending games the way I suggest here would mean that umpires, and the league, wouldn’t have to jump through all the hoops they currently do, playing games in horrendous conditions, just to get five innings in. Perhaps a time could be established — say, one hour after a delay is called — and at that point, if it doesn’t look like play could be resumed within a reasonable time after, the game could be suspended. That would have been much better Saturday night. The game was stopped at 7:43 — if they could have suspended it at, say, 8:45, everyone could have gone home, rested up, and resumed play at noon Sunday.

The only exception to this would be for the last game played between two teams in any season, if interrupted by weather. Obviously, you’d have to try to finish those — unless they have no bearing on the playoff races, in which case just cancel them if they don’t go five innings (the one case where you’d still have the five-inning rule), or end them if they go beyond five, as happened to the Cubs and Pirates in September 2016, resulting in a 1-1 tie.

In conclusion, it’s time for Major League Baseball to revisit the “rain check” rule, because it’s forcing things to happen in modern baseball that were never conceived when the rule was put in place. Expanding the suspended game rule would be considerate to players, fans and gameday staff. Get it done, Rob Manfred, instead of forcing players, fans and gameday staff to play or sit through games in horrendous weather conditions.