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The Washington Nationals still put on a good show, but is it big league baseball? Don’t bet on it.

Returning to the ballpark after a long time away...

MLB: Game Two-San Francisco Giants at Washington Nationals
Washington Nationals fans returned to a ballpark open at full capacity last week, many seeing their first game since 2019. Marty Niland writes that new rules, ginned-up drama and partnerships with the gambling industry since then have sullied the in-game experience and devalued the on-field product.
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

I returned to Nationals Park on Saturday night for the first time since Game 5 of the 2019 World Series, expecting a Major League Baseball game between the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants. What I saw on the field and in the stands failed to qualify as such.

To be clear, none of the 24,066 who paid, or however many actually attended, should feel ashamed of themselves, although there is a degree of chagrin I can’t shake.

The real shame belongs to those who have overseen the game in the past year, seven months and 16 or 17 days, depending on your time zone. They created and allowed to develop the conditions that existed at Nationals Park on Saturday night and branded that experience as the highest quality of baseball in the world. It was inferior in every respect.

I‘m writing as if something terribly tragic occurred at the ballpark Saturday night because as far as this lifelong baseball fan is concerned, it did. It’s been a long time since I lost my innocence, actually, but this worldview is new to me.

Almost everything that has changed about baseball since Daniel Hudson’s glorious glove-toss to cap the Nationals’ championship season converged on Saturday night to cheapen the ballpark experience in 2021 and make this night tragic for anyone who loves the game.

It’s not that the Nats lost, or about the general quality of the team’s play this season, or even the bush-league mistake Victor Robles made to all but end it. Goodness knows we’ve supported some bad baseball in Washington. Being thrown out on the bases was merely the final act in a travesty that unfolded under a carnival tent in the guise of the world’s highest level of baseball.

Fans who went to the ballpark expecting a major league game were actively encouraged to gamble on a contest that was being played under specially modified rules, with rosters that included called-up minor leaguers. The ending not only failed to qualify as major league, it failed to qualify as baseball.

The worst part is that all these evils have become embedded in the game and the ballpark experience.

The Nationals and Giants are, in fact, members of an organization that brands itself as MLB, one that trades heavily on its own rich history and traditions.

Yet by the time the game started Saturday night at Nats Park, that stock-in-trade was pretty worthless.

First the good news. Everything you remember is back! The Racing Presidents, the Nat Pack, and all the fun and games before the game and between half innings are still there. Fans are back on the big board, guessing songs, playing trivia and winning “Nats Bucks.” The friendly, enthusiastic faces we know are all there, and the production values and professionalism of the presentation is all in line with what fans have come to expect from the Nats’ organization. They put on a quality show.

The stadium ushers and staff were also friendly and helpful, even though our seats weren’t on a club level. Several nice people helped us find food stands that had moved or changed since 2019 and offered to help with cashless vending. All first class. All very professional. Very nice first impression after all those months of watching ball in empty stadiums.

The pre-game scoreboard entertainment and run-up to the national anthem also are mostly the same as in the before time. But early in the routine, prior to evacuation instructions and the appeal to report suspicious activity, there’s a video from the Nationals’ gaming partner, BetMGM, breaking down the kinds of wagers fans can make on the game, with a kicker touting parlay bets as a way to win “big money,” and reminders throughout the game to download the app. A little later, just before the patriotic montage, there’s a reminder to “bet responsibly,” and a few simple rules to follow.

So before even the most basic of ritual, we have been served a gambling come-on and offered a contest to engage. It’s not the enticement to “make it rain” that comes up almost every half inning on TV, but there’s no doubt that the Nationals and their sponsors want us to bet on the game, and they make it so easy for us.

I’m not a prig. I won’t be endorsing Pete Rose for induction anytime soon, either, but I have lost money betting on professional sports, and I understand both sides of ”a piece of the action.” And no, I had nothing on this game.

Not on your life.

When someone asks you to put money into a game where the rules are unclear, that’s called a con.

A regulation major league baseball game, by definition, consists of nine innings, and if the score is tied after nine innings, additional innings of baseball are played until one team has scored more runs than the other at the end of a full inning. That’s baseball. Those are the rules of the game. Everyone in the ballpark should know them.

That’s what I saw when I attended my first Senators game in 1969, and that's the game that was played on Oct. 27, 2019, in the World Series, the pinnacle of the highest level of baseball in the world.

Games can be shortened by game-day weather and other conditions beyond the players’ and teams’ control. That’s a given.

Game 5, the last baseball game played in Washington before pandemic times, and every one that preceded it for more than 100 years set a standard of competition, professionalism and excellence that was the reputation of the major leagues. Generations of fans nationwide have made emotional and financial commitments to their teams and the game in general.

The event on Saturday night was not recognizable by those standards.

The day’s weather was bright and sunny, and an afternoon game that had been rescheduled because of rain Thursday went off without a hitch, except that it was only seven innings. On Saturday. Because it rained on Thursday. Got that? Good.

The game we had tickets for, the one that was scheduled to be a nine-inning major league game, was also shortened to seven innings. Because it rained on Thursday, the teams shortened another game on Saturday.

Not at Nats Park, on a Saturday night, when the rest of the big league slate was nearly complete before 9 p.m., Eastern.

Most fans have already become used to the level of greed whereby teams charge separate admissions to see two games in one day. The “true doubleheader” is a relic of the past. Let us all shed a tear.

But different rules for different games on different days, based on weather conditions from previous days? It’s literal nonsense.

So the score was tied at 0-0 at the end of seven innings. In baseball, they play the eighth inning and the ninth inning, and then if the score is still tied, they play additional innings of baseball until there is a winner. Also, in baseball, there are certain situations that occur in a game whereby a runner is allowed to occupy a base.

None of that happened after the seventh inning of whatever game they were playing.

First of all, what’s with the whole concept of the eighth inning being an “extra” inning? In baseball, all innings are played under the same rules. The only thing different about “extra” innings is that there are more of them after the ninth. Some people call it “free baseball.”

But to be “extra,” there have to be more of them than a reasonable fan would normally expect to get. For those expecting a Major League Baseball game, nothing “extra” happened Saturday night. We paid for nine innings of baseball and instead got seven innings of baseball and one inning of something else.

We were offered a new, improved product with something “extra.”

We were robbed.

Under this gimmickry, so we were told, the last batter to make an out — and definitely not one who was allowed to occupy a base in the previous inning — was awarded second base to start the first inning labeled “extra.”

But not for the Giants. Their last out in the seventh was made by was six-time All-Star Buster Posey as a pinch hitter for the pitcher. Solid baseball move by Giants manger Gabe Kapler. Casali was behind the plate all night, giving Posey part of a day off. He had batted in his own turn, prior to Posey’s, and hit into a force play where the previous batter, Austin Slater, made the second out of the inning. So, of course, Casali was awarded second base to start the “extra” inning.

I wasn’t keeping a scorecard, either. But someone who was ruled that this should happen. It doesn’t make sense, but nothing else did, anyway.

I wonder how many of the Nats’ beat writers led Saturday’s gamer with Casali’s 5-4 force-out, being so important to the outcome and all?

The more accurate term to describe these apparently unscheduled innings is not “extra” but “special.” No one can imagine anything like them.

So whatever game the Giants and Nationals played in that “special” eighth inning was not baseball. It was a contest being played under rules that the paying customers could not understand. And the outcome of the contest, and money of paying customers getting in on the action, was at stake.

With the all the substitutions and ginned-up positioning of a baserunner, the possibility of making any kind of educated prediction about the outcome had been reduced to ridiculously long odds.

So much for major league standards.

One of my greatest mentors, Ken Denlinger of The Washington Post, told me something profound about the prospect of interleague play when it was being discussed in 1996.

“There are some things you just don’t (mess around) with,” he told me.

It’s a pity the guardians of the game didn’t have that attitude.

They’ve been messing with our beloved cultural touchstone ever since. Before we got Little League-length games with gimmicks to make them them more fun, we were given wild cards and video replay, and all of its unintended consequences followed, as did “Showdowns” — one-game playoffs between teams that aren’t tied in the standings. I know the Nats won the World Series as a Wild Card team. If that’s all you’ve got, you’ve missed the point.

Let’s not overlook the adoption of advanced analytics at the cost of scouting careers, the contraction of the minor leagues at the cost of many others, the advent of “tanking” as a team-building strategy, and a cheating scandal. Even though major league owners would rather we did overlook those things, let’s not.

I get it. I’m not the target demographic anymore. MLB wants my Gen-Z kids and their friends spending disposable income on tickets, food, alcohol and bets on the game. Despite their relative youth, my kids and their friends are also fans of the game. They won’t be fooled for long by the inferior product being pitched.

Taking my son to watch Game 5 of the 2019 World Series fulfilled a lifelong dream. We’ve already agreed it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, an emotional and financial investment.

I bought those tickets on the the secondary market, using baseball’s official ticket resale partner at that time. The price I paid was multiples of the tickets’ face value, with interest-free financing. The real value of those tickets was not in the money I paid for them, but from being with my boy in the same place as major leaguers who had dedicated their lives to fulfilling their passion, competing at the sport’s highest level, on its biggest stage. It was in cheering them on and being part of a community that bonded over our common love.

That experience with my son was worth every penny, and then some, and its value has appreciated infinitely.

Face value for Saturday’s ticket was far less than for the World Series, of course. The value of the experience, however, began dropping the minute I took my seat.

When baseball commissioner Rob Manfred began to schedule seven-inning games and gin up the drama of extra-inning contests, with the blessing of the owners who employ him, he was not elevating Little League rules to a new level. He lowered the game’s own premium standards for everything — except the number of innings a pitcher must throw to qualify for a win, a stat that certain Cy Young Award winners have called overrated.

Scheduled games are made up as part of seven-inning twin bills on a whim, and those doubleheaders have their own special roster rules, encouraging managers to call up minor leaguers to play for fatigued members of the regular roster.

Jefry Rodríguez, one of a flurry of roster moves before the first game on Saturday, was not listed as a probable pitcher until minutes before game time. He pitched a great game but might have played Saturday for Rochester if there hadn’t been a doubleheader.

Is that an outcome a fan can confidently predict, as our team and its partner encourage?

A big clue to the mindset of baseball fans in 2021 came in the top of the sixth inning, with no score. As Tanner Rainey was walking batters and struggling to get out of the jam, the crowd started doing the wave.

The same fans who had been enraptured by the in-game entertainment and were supposed to be captivated by all the gimmick rules had gotten restless waiting for some action.

That cheer breeds from boredom. It was the sixth inning of a scoreless game, which can turn on a single pitch. There was tension in the ballpark until someone decided it was appropriate to stand and wave their arms while their own pitcher couldn’t find the strike zone.

The fans got tired on their fourth or fifth time around, and Rainey got out of the inning.

Don’t blame 24,000 people who thought they were bored in that situation for doing the wave and simultaneously telling the old guy who’s pleading with them to respect the game to pound sand.

Most people in the ballpark are young and out for a good time, and they were having one. If they believe they got a valuable experience for their money — or that the event matched their expectations — I hope they are happy and fulfilled.

The shame and disgrace belongs to the people who believe they can reel in thousands at once with gimmicks and ginned-up drama, conditioning them to expect nonstop action.

With the pandemic coming to what we all hope will be its end, and people returning to the entertainment they’ve enjoyed for years, it’s good to know that the Washington Nationals still put on a good show for the fans, and people can again go out and have fun, and even get lucky and win a few bucks.

But the big secret to running a con is to constantly change the game.

That’s what Manfred and the people who run MLB have been doing for years. In doing so, they have cheapened their own on-field product and in-game experience with less of everything and incomprehensible rules, engendering a culture within the game that discourages best efforts and best practices. Now they’re urging us to put our money on it.

Not on your life.