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The baseball game that ended with a home run derby

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2015 Eastern League All-Star Game at Hadlock Field in Portland, Maine. Note the faux Green Monster in left field.
2015 Eastern League All-Star Game at Hadlock Field in Portland, Maine. Note the faux Green Monster in left field.
Photo courtesy of Bob Lipman

One of the most memorable moments of the Bud Selig Era in baseball was the Commissioner's decision to walk out after the 11th inning of the 2002 Major League Baseball All-Star Game and declared a 7-7 tie. It made practical sense: both teams were on their last pitcher and since it was an exhibition game, there was no reason to make them pitch multiple innings and risk injury. Despite that logic, fans were unhappy. Some wanted more ball to be played, some wanted refunds. This was baseball. There are no ties in baseball, you just keep playing until you find a winner.

In order to counter  fan discontent, Selig decided to make the All-Star Game "mean something" by making giving the winning league home field advantage in the World Series. Of course, that doesn't really solve the problem of having a prolonged extra-inning all-star game some time in the future.

For a neat solution, we can turn to the double-A Eastern League, which uses a post-game home run derby contest to decide the winner of all-star games that end in a tie after nine innings. Chris Cameron, the assistant general manager and public relations director of the All-Star Game host Portland Sea Dogs, helpfully provided me with the official Eastern League All-Star Game tiebreaking rules:

In the event that the All-Star game is tied the outcome will be decided with a "Home Run Derby Shootout". Each manager will select three representatives to receive one swing for a home run until all six have taken a swing. Batters will alternate between the Eastern & Western. The Western team will swing first and the Eastern team will get "last ups". If the score (# of HR) remains tied after three batters per team, each manager will continue to choose one player at a time to swing. A member of the coaching staff for each team will pitch to their own team.

As it turns out, the 2015 Eastern League All-Star Game completed nine innings with the Eastern and Western Division teams tied 4-4. After the final out of the bottom of the ninth was made, both teams came off the field, a batting practice "L" screen was set up in front of the mound, and after a brief break, the derby began.

Representing the Western Division were Dan Gamache, Dean Green, and Ricky Oropesa, representing the Eastern Division were Brian Pointer, Brock Stassi, and Blue Jays prospect K.C. Hobson.

Calling the dingers contest a "shootout" deliberately evokes the image of the tiebreaking contest in the National Hockey League, but this one was not nearly as exciting. Because each batter only had one swing per at bat, they tended to watch a lot of pitches go by before swinging. And because neither the batter nor the coach throwing batting practice fastballs get into a rhythm, fans saw quite a few balls popped up or land foul. Save two near-homers that had the distance but hooked foul, the derby actually became kind of boring. Unlike in hockey, there were no dekes, no fakes, no great saves.

Home run derbies are fun because fans get to see a lot of dingers, but fans had to wait 22 at bats before they got to see the first homer, when Pointer "walked off" for the Eastern Division team.

Although flawed, it was a fun unique way of ending a baseball game. Perhaps the Eastern League can take a note from the MLB Home Run Derby, and do a timed contest to settle the next tie game, which probably won't happen again for many years.

The way the Eastern League game ended did get the other double-A leagues' notice. John Harris, the director of operations of the Southern League, stated in an email to me that the he "commend[s] [President] Joe McEachern and the Eastern League for such an innovative and unique concept," and that the derby format is something their their rules and competition committee may consider as a way of improving the fan experience.

The Texas League, who have had three All-Star Games end in ties, actually uses the winner of the pre-game home run derby to break ties.

"Actually, the EL may have taken the idea from us," Tom Kayser said in an email, "I think it is a great idea. We used the derby to break a tie a few times, but have not done so in a few years. We now advertise a maximum of 10 innings and let the fans know that the game can end in a tie." He said that planned fireworks and other post-game events would be disrupted if there was a post-game home run derby.

Since the Western Division of the Eastern League won the pre-game derby, they would've been crowned the winners had their league followed the Texas League's rules.

Winning Home Run EL 2015 ASG

Fisher Cats catcher Jack Murphy celebrates Brian Pointer's winning home run at home plate. Don't see that very often. Photo by 365DigitalPhotography.com courtesy of Chris Cameron.

Interview with Bob Lipman

New Hampshire Fisher Cats radio broadcaster Bob Lipman was part of the radio team who called the Eastern League All-Star Game last night along with the Sea Dogs' Mark Perlman-Price. He has been part of the Fisher Cats broadcasting crew since the team arrived in Manchester in 2004. He had previously called the mid-summer classics when New Hampshire hosted them in 2008 and 2011. I had an email conversation with Bob about last night's game (his answers have been edited slightly for clarity).

Let's first talk about the Fisher Cats at the game. Dwight Smith Jr. made a great defensive play out in left. What Fisher Cats highlights should Blue Jays fans know about?

Smith went to a knee to make a sliding catch, doubling off Josh Bell at second base. That was one of the top defensive plays of the night.

In the seventh inning, with the bases loaded, Jorge Flores showed great range to his left on a grounder and made a strong throw to first to end the inning which kept the game tied at 4-4. Danny Barnes did a terrific job in relief with two strikeouts.

Now, to the incredible finish. You mentioned on the broadcast that the tiebreaker format had changed, and that you only received the email regarding the new rules that morning. Did you think that you'd see a tie game?

I don't think we've ever had a tiebreaker in place, not sure since it hasn't happened. It seemed that with the strength of the pitching late in the game--most of the guys coming in were strong relievers--that we would could end in a tie. Mark showed me an e-mail after the West had tied the game, advising that the game would not go to extra innings due to the availability of pitchers. They had worked out the details of the home run shootout in advance. Still, there's no way to prepare for that as a player. Coaches had to warm up and throw something close to batting practice at 10 pm. At least as a broadcaster, I had the heads-up and knew what was coming so we could explain it properly.

Do you know why the league chose to change the format?

Pretty much teams are assured pitchers won't work more than an inning in the All-Star Game. We get right back into play the next day across the league and have to make sure the staffs aren't taxed. There were 10 pitchers on each team, so there was no margin for ineffectiveness or injury.

At what point did you think a tiebreaker was possible? Were you rooting for the score to stay tied so you could see it?

Short of a walk-off home run in the ninth, which would have been terrific, I think I did want to see the tie-breaker. I had no idea how it would play out. I did notice no winning or losing pitcher was assigned and the score was listed as "4-4".

What did you think of the format? What changes, if any, would you like to see next time around?

Maybe have one player from each team go to head-to-head for three swings. If tied, then on to the next player. That way the player and coach could at least have a few swings to work with each other.

Observing the fans, were they excited to learn about how the game was going to end? Did they stay excited through the 22 at bats it took to finish the derby?

I did have an "old-timer" tell me that was no way to end a baseball game. And I was very surprised it took 22 swings, but in the pre-game home run derby, it was clear it was going to be a difficult night to hit a home run. In general, I think fans were quite thrilled with the format and were very involved in the action.

Thanks, Bob, for answering these questions after a long night and ahead of a long day of travel from Portland back to Manchester.

Celebration 2015 EL ASG

Eastern League All-Stars celebrate. I think these players care about winning the game! Photo by 365DigitalPhotography.com courtesy of Chris Cameron.