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Olney: Fight to the ... tie? Extra innings moving toward extinction

There weren't many fans left on a cold night in Chicago as the Cubs and Yankees played 18 innings. Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire

It was sometime around midnight that the Chicago Cubs' search for the run that would end the extra-inning madness against the New York Yankees became desperate. With Chicago batting -- I think it was in the bottom of the 16th inning, although sleeplessness has added a hazy halo around some of the details -- somebody in the Cubs' dugout started firing a barrage of sunflower seeds toward the field. Dozens of seeds, one at a time; a couple reached the third-base foul line, and then one or two bounced onto the field, with third-base umpire Alan Porter glancing over.

Players occasionally launch seeds like this onto the field from game to game, but the sudden eruption in the sixth hour of play Sunday suggested a brilliant attempt to alter the karma of the baseball gods. Rally seeds. But like the hitters for both teams in overtime, the sunflower ploy failed; the Cubs did not score, again, and at the end of the half-inning, the player responsible for the seeds threw out another handful, like the last burst at the end of a fireworks show.

The next inning, Kyle Schwarber donned a catcher's mask in the dugout, and Ben Zobrist wore a helmet backward. Anything to end the game, which finally concluded after 18 frigid innings, 6 hours and 5 minutes, and 583 pitches. As a reporter looking for interesting stuff to happen, I thought it was fun, a baseball marathon to be recounted to grandchildren in a quarter-century. I love the chance for chaos -- the baseball landmark for chaos might be the rain-delayed, 19-inning game between the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves that started on July 4, 1985, and ended with the promised fireworks just before breakfast.

But the players and managers have a far different perspective. Anthony Rizzo was hit on the left forearm by a 99 mph Aroldis Chapman fastball in the ninth inning but had to keep playing another three hours and nine innings after that when he probably should’ve been out of the game. Cubs manager Joe Maddon had to extend relievers, some of whom began the game already taxed from recent work, into an area of increased risk. And when it was over, the Cubs and Yankees both had to travel overnight, arriving at hotels near dawn about 12 hours before their next game.

I hope they keep the current rules in place, because they create the birth of the occasional memorable marathon, and Major League Baseball is well aware that fans want extra innings to continue until a resolution of win or lose. On Monday, I sent out a Twitter poll asking for the preference of followers, and the response was a landslide: About 75 percent want the status quo.

But there has been an increased focus on player safety and working conditions in the industry, and I suspect that, inevitably, the marathon games will soon be an endangered species, moving toward eventual extinction, like home plate collisions and takeout slides at second base.

This is not a foregone conclusion, however, nor is the adoption of the World Baseball Classic rules, through which runners were placed in scoring position in extra innings to greatly increase the chances for resolution. MLB was the driving force behind the alterations of those rules at second base and home, pushing the union toward change, but if there are going to be 12-inning ties or other adjustments, the players' association will have to get out of its bunker and barter for that. The players will have to lead that conversation.

If they take that step, they will be silently cheered on by club executives, many of whom view the marathons as senseless madness. Those officials note the risk/reward scales tip steeply for continuing games late into the night, with players pushed to the brink of injury, if not beyond, and that their teams are affected for days and weeks afterward for the sake of extra time that most fans don’t actually stick around to watch. (On Sunday night, some hardy souls were still around for the end of the Yankees-Cubs game, but perhaps only a quarter of the original crowd.)

In this era, pitchers throw fewer pitches and fewer innings, position players are on the field for fewer games, the disabled list is used more often. The product is protected in a way it wasn’t in the days of Babe Ruth and Willie Mays and, even, Barry Bonds. And for that reason, it figures that, eventually, the extra, extra innings and the 17th-inning backward caps and rally seeds will go away.