Baseball is a restrictive sport—players are literally fenced in, batters stay in a box, and runners must stick to a path. That extra innings can amass ad infinitum and a game could conceivably last forever is counterintuitive to the nature of the game itself, yet it's the most interesting thing about it.
I think about it any time a game goes to extra innings. This is it...these idiots are going to keep playing forever. But then there's a wild pitch or a bloop single or a balk and runners advance and the game ends. Fans go home, players start thinking about the next one, and everyone is spared from baseball purgatory.
But what if a game never ended? What would that be like?
I asked baseball historian David Vincent that question. "Theoretically," he said, "a game could go forever, but I doubt that will ever happen." Theoretical is good enough for me. Let's make this happen.
The rules are set in place, and with baseball being baseball, they are a little complicated. First, we must eliminate scenarios in which a contest can end in a tie. According to Vincent, Rule 4.12 (b)(4)(ii) allows for ties in games that are suspended but aren't in the postseason or critical to a playoff race:
Any suspended game not completed prior to the last scheduled game between the two teams during the championship season shall become a called game. If such game becomes a called game and has progressed far enough to become a regulation game, and the score is tied, the game shall be declared a “tie game.” A tie game is to be replayed in its entirety, unless the league president determines that playing the rescheduled game is not necessary to affect the league championship.
Regular season games are often postponed to a later date in order keep the schedule going (Vincent references a 2009 Houston-Washington game that started in D.C. in May, but was delayed by rain and resumed in Houston a full two months later). In order to facilitate a near-continuous, never-ending affair, our game will have to take place in the postseason.
Why not a Game 7?
World Series Game 7
October 30, 2014 (estimated start date): The teams run out onto the field for what promises to be a thrilling, winner-take-all showdown. What these innocent ballplayers don't know is that this stadium will become a prison of sorts.
Top of the 1st. Play Ball! (Forever): The first of an infinite number of pitches is thrown. Because this is a World Series game, we assume it has a start time of around 8 p.m. EST. Were this a regular season contest, we might run into curfew issues. The NL abolished its league-wide curfew in 1964, but the American League has a curfew for night games (games starting after 6.00 p.m.), and no inning can start after 12:59 a.m. However, according to the Society for American Baseball Research, that curfew is "waived for the final game of the season between two teams in each of the cities."
Individual parks have their own rules. For example, on Saturday nights in Baltimore, games must stop play at 11:59 p.m. no matter what. In a ballpark with no curfew, we can keep the lights on and play as long as we need (unless the game is suspended by the umpires. We'll get to that).
Seventh-Inning Stretch: Time to stretch those legs. You won't be going anywhere for a while. A pop singer comes out to sing "God Bless America." Fans roll their eyes as she uses extended vibrato during the overlong, self-indulgent performance. Years later they will laugh at the irony.
Top of the Eighth: Beer sales stop. This is not a big deal...at the time. Stadiums have individual policies on when they stop serving alcohol, but MLB as a whole does not.
Bottom of the Ninth: It's a tie game and the away team's closer strikes out the side. Assuming an average baseball game lasts around three hours (and a postseason game lasts longer), the time is about 11:45 p.m. EST.
"How exciting, Game 7 is going into extras!" a little boy thrilled to be up so late tells his father. Little does he know, he will be watching this game until he dies of old age.
Bottom of the 18th: It's been a long night. Every pitcher has been used, so outfield players are on the mound. It is 3:24 a.m. This is now the latest a Major League Baseball game has ever gone (a rain-delayed Expos-Phillies game in 1977 lasted until 3:23 a.m.). The fans are still in their seats. "Looks like I'll be calling in sick to work tomorrow," a woman jokes to her seat mate. By the time this game ends, her job will have been made obsolete thousands of times over.
Top of the 23rd: Precedent. It is now 4:09 a.m., the time umpires suspended the previous longest game in baseball history. That was April 19, 1981, and the Rochester Red Wings were tied 2-2 with the Pawtucket Red Sox. The game was resumed two months later.
Because of the magnitude of the World Series, I imagine these umpires would elect to keep it going as long as they can. Be it just past sunrise or another full day, they will break out of exhaustion and eventually suspend the game. It is scheduled to recommence the next evening.
Everyone goes home to sleep. The stadium's grass needs to be mowed.
The Days Ahead: In order to stave off exhaustion, the remaining outfield players take turns pitching every inning. No rule states that they can't swap in and out, so this rotation will have to work lest they do serious damage to their arms.
Assuming we aren't in a dome, the skies will eventually open up and cold rain will start to fall—our first weather delay. The grounds crew rolls out the tarps. Players dance deliriously in the downpour. Finally, a break in the repetition.
The game resumes a couple hours later. The stadium reevaluates its policy on the sale of beer.
The Months Ahead: The pattern continues: Players show up and play ball from where they left off until the umpire suspends the game again. They take the team bus to the stadium and back over and over again. They notice stores and restaurants along the route close for business, only to be replaced by new establishments days—or is it weeks??—later.
Members of the away team miss their families and invite them to stay at the team hotel. Living in a small hotel room wears on them. The few hours a day not spent playing baseball are tense. But they persevere.
Depending on the game's location, there might be an extended winter break. If it's in a warm climate or played indoors, then the luxury of a few months off is out of the question. The umpire walks onto the field and glares into the low, setting December sun. "Play ball," he sighs.
The players, undoubtedly exhausted, will start succumbing to injuries and normal seasonal illnesses brought on by stress and lack of sleep. Given that the game is suspended daily, teams have the opportunity to substitute in new players. According to Rule 4.12(c):
A player who was not with the club when the game was suspended may be used as a substitute, even if he has taken the place of a player no longer with the club who would not have been eligible because he had been removed from the lineup before the game was suspended.
This is huge, and it's the key to this game lasting forever. Teams are allowed to bring in new players at will, just as long as the replacement occurs after the game is suspended. Front offices start cutting their stars to replenish the side with players from the minor leagues and overseas.
Fans who have been redeeming their weathered old ticket stubs to gain reentry to the game every day no longer recognize their favorite team's players. The box score grows vertically as well as horizontally now.
It is no longer a war of attrition. It is a full-fledged nightmare.
April 1, 2015: The start of the new season is delayed until the completion of the 2014 World Series.
Top of the 10951st (October 30, 2015): The one-year anniversary of the game's beginning. FOX Sports ∞, a television channel created just to broadcast this game, features a short, 45-minute highlight package to commemorate the anniversary.
The Decades Ahead: By the turn of the 22nd century, interest in baseball has waned. The sport isn't helped by the fact that only one game has been played for nearly 90 years. A great-great-grandson of one of the original players is brought up to play and wears his ancestor's number in his honor. He, like all the other players playing now, is terrible at baseball.
The talent pool has shrunk and the quality of the game has plummeted to the point where pitchers can't even throw strikes. Unfortunately, this evolution occurs during the top of an inning, so players are repeatedly walked around and around the bases. The away team's score stretches toward infinity and the home team will never get another chance to bat.
The Centuries Ahead: Civilizations rise and fall. The game is kept playing because, as the oracles say, "It has always been so."
5 Billion Years Later: The sun explodes as yet another ball four is called. Eight minutes later, an unspeakably bright light cleanses the stadium in a blanket of flame. According to MLB Rule 4.12 (a)(iii):
A game shall become a suspended game that must be completed at a future date if the game is terminated for any of the following reasons: Light failure or malfunction of a mechanical field device under control of the home club.
The game is suspended and rescheduled.
All photos courtesy Getty Images
Note: Regarding the rule that postseason rosters must be submitted and cemented before the playoffs start—there are ways around this that our two teams would find given the extreme circumstances. In the case of injury, teams can bring up replacement players that were not on the postseason roster. The rules state that any player listed in the organization (including the minors) before August 31st is eligible. Our teams would argue that once the calendar year ends, MLB's postseason eligibility calendar rolls over as well (it has to sometime). The two teams' minor league programs would then be used as literal farm systems, bringing in players in order to send them up and provide this game with sustenance. The postseason injury call-ups are dependent on the commissioner's approval, so we have to assume he or she would allow it.