Tie Games in Baseball

One of the little peculiarities about baseball was, until recently, how it traditionally treated tie games.

This essay has, by necessity, a dual nature. Before I can get to how tie games were treated, I have to respond to the inevitable cry of disbelief: Tie games in baseball? No such thing! At least not in regular season games. Sure, there is the 2002 All-Star Game. People are still complaining about that. (I am nearly alone in thinking it a perfectly reasonable response to the facts on the ground.) Then there are Spring training games. But I am writing here about regular season games.

Tie games can happen, but the system is rigged so that they don’t happen often. The last time one occurred was on June 30, 2005, Houston playing at Cincinnati (remember when Houston was a National League club?). The game was called due to rain after seven innings with the score 2-2.

In the early days of baseball tie games were not uncommon. There were three standard reasons a game might have to be called: darkness, rain, or one of the teams had a train to catch. If, when they stopped play, the score was even, the game was a tie (assuming they had gotten in five innings) or nothing at all (if they had not).

This became less common over the decades. Once you have artificial lights, darkness no longer is an issue. Travel technology has improved such that teams rarely have to quit playing for that reason. Then there is improved drainage of ball fields. Don’t underestimate the influence of drainage on baseball history. Back in the day, once enough rain had come down, they all went home. Even if the rain stopped, the field would be a giant mud pit. Modern ballparks have serious thought put into drainage design. Combine this with a willingness to finish the game at three in the morning if that’s what it takes, and games don’t get called on account of rain nearly as often as they used to.

Then there is the concept of the suspended game. The traditional principle was that once everyone goes home, the game is over, come what may. In the 1950s the rules were amended to allow for a game to be suspended, and later picked up where it had been left off. The circumstances under which a game would be suspended, rather than called, originally were very narrow: a legal curfew, a league time limit, light failure (i.e. electric lights, not just the sun setting), and darkness in the second game of a Sunday double header in jurisdictions where the lights could not be turned on. (That last one is a bit of a mystery to me. My guess is that this was a vestige of the old blue laws.) Notably absent from the list is the game being stopped by rain. That wasn’t the point of the new rule. I suspect that the real point was that lighting technology was a bit iffy at that time, and light failures common enough that they needed to be addressed in the rules. (Only a hardened cynic would suggest that a home club on the wrong side of a blowout might engineer a light failure.)

The concept of the suspended game was later extended to correct a perceived injustice. Suppose the visiting team was behind at the end of the eighth inning, but surged and took the lead in the top of the ninth, immediately followed by the deluge. It seems unfair that they would get the loss under those circumstances. Better to suspend the game and finish it up later.

The final (so far) step in the evolution of the suspended game is to use it to avoid tie games. Now, if the game was gone at least five innings and the score is tied when the deluge hits, the game is suspended. That 2005 game wouldn’t be a tie today. It would be finished later.

Can a tie game occur today? Sure, but the stars have to align just so. There is, and has been all along, an exception to suspended games. The game is usually finished on the day of the next game, on the same ground, between the two clubs. If no such game is scheduled, it is finished at their next game on the other side’s field. A later elaboration is that they will make a day, however inconvenient, if the game might affect the final standings. But for those dreary late September games in bad weather that will make no difference either way, the league (or, nowadays, MLB) says the hell with it: go home.

So if a game is stopped with at least five innings played and the score tied, and if the two teams are not scheduled to meet again that season, and if the game would not affect the final standings, then the MLB office would say the heck with it and leave it as a tie. It could happen…

Now I can get to how these games are counted: They aren’t. Or rather, they aren’t for purposes of the standings. Before the recent rules change the tie game would be replayed, assuming that this could be worked reasonably conveniently into the schedule, and if the game could actually matter it would be replayed even if not reasonably convenient.

This rule to replay ties is unusual. Compare it with the NFL, where tie games are rare, but they show up in the standings. Since the ranking in the standings is based on win-loss percentage tie games are effectively invisible in the ranking, but they still appear in the standings. Then there is soccer, where the tie is pretty common. The system is set up to account for this. Standings are based on a point system, with three points awarded for a win and one for a tie. For many years it was two points for a win. This was raised to three to encourage teams to play for the win rather than hunkering down and settling for a tie.

What made baseball’s policy so odd is that tie games were replayed, as if they hadn’t happened, yet they still count in personal player records. If a guy hits a home run moments before the skies open up, that home run counts so long as they got their five innings in. (If they didn’t get in those five innings, then nothing happened: move along, nothing to see here…)

This places the tie game is a sort of limbo, sort of existing and sort of not. This is, so far as I can tell, unique in organized sports. It also means that a team can play more than the regulation 162 games in a season. The inestimable retrosheet.org has season game log data dumps. These include numbering each game for each club. If a tie occurs and is replayed, this can result in more than 162 games in a season. (This isn’t the only way this can happen. A one-game playoff to break a tie in the standings is technically considered part of the regular season, notwithstanding that everyone calls it a “playoff”.)

To explain this policy, we need to go to the early days of organized baseball, before the Civil War. Most games at that time were intramural affairs. The purpose of a baseball club was for young men in sedentary occupations to take their exercise together in a socially congenial atmosphere. The club would typically meet two afternoons a week during the season. The members who showed up were divided into two sides (which might come out to nine on a side, but usually didn’t, and that was OK) and played a game of baseball.

Boys being boys, once there are two clubs in one city they are going to compete. These competitions were known as “match games.” Each club picked their nine best players, who went at it. But the early match game was much more than this. The entire affair was couched in terms of sociability. When one club challenged another, it was also an invitation to come visit. The game was followed by a dinner, which could be quite elaborate , with speechifying and songs, with the challenging club playing the role of the host and the challenged club the guest. Such hospitality must be reciprocated, of course: hence the return game. This was all very companionable, but if each club won one game it was also unsatisfying. The concession to the competitive urge came in 1855, when a third game on a neutral site (presumably with fewer social trappings) was added if necessary as a tie breaker.

The social aspects faded away in the 1860s. They had, predictably, spiraled in an escalating cycle of competitive hospitality that threatened the financial viability of the clubs. They finally called a cease-fire. The socializing continued for a time with clubs visiting from out of town, but even this was a dead letter by the end of the 1860s. The best-of-three series remained as the standard by which two clubs tested their mettle.

Next we come to the early professional era and the founding of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs in 1871. One of its primary functions was to organize a professional championship system. The scheme they devised was for each club entering the championship race to play a series, extended from three to five, with each other club. This was not quite what the system later evolved into. The series were not of five games, but best-of-five games. If one club won the first three games, they didn’t play the last two. There also was an embarrassing kerfluffle because no one had thought to clarify whether the championship went to the club winning the most games or winning the most series. They got that sorted out eventually, and for 1872 made it five full games each, regardless, with the championship going to the club winning the most games. It was another decade before they switched to the modern system of the championship going to the club with the highest win-loss percentage.

What does this have to do with tie games? In the older best-of-three system, tie games simply don’t fit in. If, after three games have been played, each club has won one game, plus a tie, then nothing is resolved. The only thing to do is to play a fourth game. At the same time, this is no reason to disregard the tie game for calculating personal averages (a practice going back to the 1850s). A tie was a valid, if unsatisfying, result, and the accomplishments of the players equally valid. This remains true during the era of calculating the championship by total wins. If a tie game is counted in the standings, it is no better than a loss. The old practice of replaying a tie was retained, apparently without discussion, while the logic of including the tie game in the players statistics was also unchanged. Not until the 1880s, when the championship was finally calculated by win-loss percentage, would it make any sense to simply keep the tie game in the standings, removing it from the win-loss percentage and thereby making it effectively invisible. By that time the practice of replaying ties was so firmly established that it seems not to have occurred to anyone to abolish it. (Only a hardened cynic would point out that by replaying the game, they also could charge an additional admission.)

Baseball is, with the recent rule change, sadly less idiosyncratic than of old. Every game that formerly would have ended in a tie and been replayed is now instead a suspended game to be completed later. The only games now allowed to stand as ties are the ones too irrelevant to be worth completing, much less replayed. The effect, entirely unintentional, is for baseball to have backed its way into de facto adopting the more widespread practice of leagues such as the NFL. We live in straitened times.

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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3 thoughts on “Tie Games in Baseball

  1. Sure, there is the 2002 All-Star Game. People are still complaining about that. (I am nearly alone in thinking it a perfectly reasonable response to the facts on the ground.)

    For the fans at home who don’t remember, the teams were tied going in to the eleventh inning and both sides had run out of pitchers. So the general thinking was, it’s the All-Star Game and no one wants to risk an injury for a game that isn’t for the standings. They didn’t use the All-Star Game for anything other than itself back then, not even opening-field advantage in the World Series like they do now. So Commissioner Bud Selig and the respective team managers gather in the middle of the eleventh out on the field, and decide that if the home team (the NL in that case) didn’t score a winning run in the inning, the game would called as a tie.

    I grudgingly concede that for a meaningless-other-than-itself All-Star Game, that was a least-bad call.

    But for a game that counts? Use the third baseman on the mound if you have to. Seems to me that part of the point is that players are supposed to fatigue and tire until a mistake gets made and one side slips up. But to be a major league baseball pitcher these days is to sign up for a job voluntarily dislocating your own shoulder every four or five days, because that’s what you need to do in order to pitch a ball that fast. So conserving the star pitchers to win another day is part of the long-term strategy that teams should be required to confront and come up with solutions to.

    Ties, after all, are deeply unsatisfying. Sport is about striving to win. Alas that there must be a loser, but a loser is necessary in order that there be a winner.

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    • I totally agree about this in baseball – and I speak as the last pitcher available on our roster (nominally the shortstop) back in my playing days, who had to throw back-to-back complete games (albeit with a week in between) of over 150 pitches each (fun fact – in the second, tougher, game, I got zero swinging strikes while allowing 13 runs).

      In other sports, particularly football and futbol, I’m not so sure. After 120 minutes, the injury risk to exhausted people is just too high for me (or for gridiron, 75 minutes and 90 plays). In baseball, the roster size and the fact that the field players have had it relatively easy make it more reasonable to substitute the battery.

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    • But for a game that counts? Use the third baseman on the mound if you have to.

      Which does happen in games that go long enough that the bullpen is exhausted, or are such blowouts that it’s not worth exhausting it. There’s almost always someone who pitched in college or high school or the minors that’s willing to take one for the team. Of course, when the dumbest player in baseball did that, he managed to hurt his arm badly enough to require Tommy John surgery to fix it. (Need another clue? Playing the outfield, he once gave up a home run by letting it bounce off his head and over the fence.)

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