Midwest baseball. Summer rain. Nothing unusual there.
Except for the stunningly inept performance in Chicago by the Wrigley Field grounds crew, leading to last night's 4-1/2 inning victory by the Cubs over the Giants. Yes, they played half a game in Chicago (and took longer than the typical Yankees-Red Sox game to do it), and when it was over, nobody was talking about Anthony Rizzo's home run.
The rules of baseball say this: "A regulation game consists of nine innings, unless extended because of a tie score, or shortened (1) because the home team needs none of its half of the ninth inning or only a fraction of it, or (2) because the umpire calls the game." Well, (2) is what happened in Chicago. And the way it happened is what left the Giants and their fans seething.
Let's review how baseball deals with weather issues. The home team is in control of the decision to play or not play until the game starts. Once it does, the umpires take charge. But--and this is crucial to the discussion here--the grounds crew and the flow of weather information are under the control of the home team.
Yes, it rained hard for a few minutes at Wrigley Field last night. Unfortunately for the Giants, the skies opened up about five minutes too late. If the umpires had waved the teams off the field before Buster Posey made the last out in the top of the 5th, and if the grounds crew had screwed up just as badly, the game would have been a rainout. Not a suspended game, to be picked up at a later date. A rainout, since it wouldn't have been an official game.
Oddly, baseball's rules permit a game to be suspended if a mechanical tarpaulin fails, but not if a human grounds crew screws up, specifically allowing a suspension under the following circumstances: "Light failure or malfunction of a mechanical field device under control of the home club. (Mechanical field device shall include automatic tarpaulin or water removal equipment)".
The preceding rule seems to make one thing clear: The Lords of Baseball didn't want home teams monkeying with mechanical things like lights and tarps in order to gain an advantage. Perhaps there was a noble assumption that the hard-working men of the grounds crew were beyond reproach.
Look, let's not kid ourselves here. Baseball lore is full of stories like the Giants' own groundskeeper Matty Schwab soaking the Candlestick Park basepaths to slow Dodgers speedster Maury Wills. The grounds crew works for the home team, period.
Am I saying the Cubs tarp-haulers created that swamp on purpose to guarantee a Cubs win? I'm not going that far. I have no evidence of malfeasance, and Cubs management and the umpiring crew are all saying the right things.
But it doesn't look good. The essence of sport is the belief that the playing field is level. Baseball's rules, perhaps unwittingly, hand the home team an added advantage by allowing a situation like this to occur. It turns out playing at home doesn't just mean you get to bat last.
The solution is actually pretty simple. The umpiring crew--or in this era of "eye in the sky" replay, the MLB head office--should be given the discretion to decide if a situation is unusual enough to warrant suspending the game rather than calling it. The rules already permit it if the lights go out.