Imagine an alternative baseball reality in which, no matter the score, both teams bat in the ninth inning. Even if the home team has already won they game (by our standards) the game isn't official til nine innings have been completed. Although dropping the bottom of the ninth has long been advocated, and is in fact a standard in youth baseball (for sportsmanship reasons) baseball purists consider a half inning at the end of the game to be a statistical and aesthetic oddity which creates odd circumstances (mostly in bookkeeping) that disrupt the elegance of the game. And that, along with the force of tradition, keeps the "ceremonial bottom of the ninth" alive.
What would this world be like?
- Obviously, there would be two approaches: to end the inning as quickly as possible, or to play the inning straight up (more on that in a below). As both gloves and bats improve, a standard approach is for the home team to bunt back to the pitcher as quickly as possible, ending the inning expeditiously. Like the kneel down play in football, there is a standard groaner about how "the winner's bunt is his favorite play". It's a strange way, admittedly, but the fans are happy and the players are happy and it doesn't take very long.
- Over time, managers begin to handle the three bunts to end the inning differently. Because of the injury risk inherent in squaring around, generally bench players are used when possible. This also allows a late substitution to produce an extra ovation for a player who has a big game. Since reaching base is not a goal of the hitter, running hard is seen as bad sportsmanship. A slow jog, even a skip or a dance, is acceptable, just enough to get out of the catcher's way is what you want. Many players become known for the specific way they "run" in these situations. There's talk in each direction, and occasional outrages, but its mostly seen as a fun part of the game.
- Although it takes awhile, the rules eventually define these innings as their own category of events, and the outs recorded, while part of the boxscore, do not get entered into a player's individual stats: the hitters aren't penalized and the pitcher doesn't get a free scoreless inning. However, this doesn't become official until 1947, creating a subtle divide in baseball history that still causes older pitchers to be overvalued. Floppy Ears O'Fitzthomas, widely revered as the greatest pitcher in baseball history, recorded 7% of his total innings in ceremonial fashion.
- From time to time fringy minor leagues allow fans to hit in the ceremonial bottom of the ninth, though the practice is generally frowned upon and seen as disrespecting the game.
- In general, the ceremonial ninth is handled the same way through the first three or four generations of the game. It's an oddity and the subject of many a standup comic's routine, but nobody really has a problem with it. "It's just a game," they say. "They don't end the football game after three quarters," they say, even though it's not really the same. Some fans like to leave before this half inning, others like to stay for it. Most of the time, it just depends on the circumstance.
- In the golden age of baseball, there are only three instances in MLB history where the inning was not more or less handled ceremonially. In 1923, Billy "Left Ear" Coughlan had his hitters swing away because the man due up fourth had a 30 game hit streak on the line. Four years later, in a strange occurrence, the Toledo Ice Queens hit straight up at the request of the opposing team, who wanted to see what a young rookie pitcher could do. Finally, in 1937, the Memphis Gobblers hit straight up against the New York Kings in what was initially claimed to be revenge for an earlier beaning. Two years later it was revealed that the Gobblers were involved in a huge gambling ring and that their motivation had monetary. The two earlier instances were not popular, but also not terribly important in the more laid-back sporting world of their day. People read about it three days later and moved on. The Gamblin' Gobblers, however, were forever associated with their meaningless hitting against the Kings, an act which kills many efforts to change the approach to the inning stillborn.
- Through the 1950s there was a strong movement to end the unnecessary bottom of the ninth, although never enough to get the change made. Why change something that, by definition, doesn't matter? Only the All-Star game officially drops the inning, a curious decision given that the entire point of that game is entertainment and display.
- Despite the Gamblin Gobblers and the staid 1950s, something monumental occurs in the late 1960s. A young manager, Joe Mayheim, with an eclectic background that includes non-baseball activities wonders why the inning isn't used to help his team. If you have to play it, why not use it? One winter he discovers that back in the 1890s managers used to do all sorts of crazy things with that half inning. So did owners, who of course, who back in those days resembled strongly the fringy minor league guys of today.
- After years of consideration, in 1968 Mayheim makes his move. Managing a young Seattle team expected to have the worst offense in the league, Mayheim tells the local press that he is planning on having his hitters hit away every inning. The Needles, he says, need the extra at bats to develop professionally. Mayheim's plan is extremely controversial, but a vocal minority both inside and outside the game, approve of the move. Opposing managers aren't happy, but short of an all-out beanball war, what can they do? The Seattle Needles are a poor team that only win 38 home games, five coming in extra innings or in a tied-ninth, so the so-called "Rascal's Ninth" is not a common occurrence. Moreover, there is little evidence that the extra plate appearances generated by the practice do much to help any of the young Needles. The practice is used sparingly in 1969. The Needles are a bad team. Mayheim is fired two weeks into the 1970 season.
- Through the 1970s the practices gains a small hold as a kind of special occasion. Players with something on the line: a streak, a strikeout record, etc. are allowed to approach the inning differently, although everyone is generally uneasy about the practice. Once or twice a season a team might hit in the bottom of the ninth if they have a number of young or slumping players due up and the practice gains some currency in the September expanded rosters period. In 1974 the Arkansas Catfish score ten runs in the bottom of the ninth, sparking a renewed outrage against the practice. By the late 1970s, it is generally only seen for what could be considered ceremonial reasons themselves: Hunter Valence famously hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth in his final at bat in 1978 after asking the pitcher from home plate to let him hit.
- By the mid to late 1980s however, a new generation of men are in the game. Mayheim's ideas, which are generally mocked, have a new currency amongst these young Turks, who have thought of all sorts of reasons why the inning should almost always be played straight up. Given that baseball, unlike other sports, features a schedule built around series and is something of a war of attrition, the argument is put forth that at the beginning of a three or four game series, if you can force your opponent to fully pitch another inning, you might as well use it, even if its just a 25th man mop up guy. By the late 1980s, this idea gains currency, and it becomes common for teams to play the inning straight up if they have the lead in the bottom of the ninth at the beginning of a series. Generally, it is considered excessive to do so at the end of the series however.
- By 2009, home teams with a lead bat straight up in the bottom of the ninth, 37% percent of the time. The benefit of using another team's pitching staff to the max is generally understood and approved. To a lesser extent, managers have also embraced occasionally using the extra inning to get bench players additional at bats, or to get a slumping player a zero leverage chance to break out of it. Once or twice a season there's a brawl due to a player or team handling the inning improperly (such as stealing a base) and the inning remains a constant conversation piece during any broadcast of the game. Some managers never tell how they'll handle the inning, others tend to say so pregame, even telling the other manager when scorecards are exchanged. In 2004 Juan Miguelito suffered a season-ending injury sliding into second while batting in the bottom of the ninth and in the past five years, the number of doubles and triples in the inning have decreased dramatically. No one has tripled in a meaningless bottom of the ninth since 2007.