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Fit to be Tied

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One of the defining characteristics of baseball is that the game continues until there is a winner. Extra-inning games are common, although it is rare that they extend beyond a few extra frames. However, in 1981 the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings played for 33 innings -- eight hours and 25 minutes -- before Pawtucket prevailed. In spring training, however, ties are commonplace. The clubs play the tenth inning, but if neither scores, everyone goes home. (Perhaps they are inspired by Commissioner Selig's infamous tie game call in the 2002 MLB All-Star Game when both clubs ran out of players.)

Europeans and other folks who adore the "beautiful game" of soccer are used to tie matches. Nil-nil can drive a crowd delirious. For Americans, however, it is just like kissing your sister. Who can love a tie?

Actually, in the early days of the baseball, club captains could agree to a draw. Harry Wright, the captain and manager of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first all-professional team, objected when, at the end of nine innings, the Brooklyn Atlantics walked off the field, willing to accept a 5-5 tie against the nation's leading nine. The crowd of thousands, who paid 50 cents to watch the game in June 1870, was delighted to accept the tie. Wright would have nothing of it. He pointed to the official rules which stated that "unless it be mutually agreed upon by the captains of the two nines to consider the game a draw," a tie game must continue into extra innings. As chance would have it, Henry Chadwick, Chairman of the Rules Committee, was in attendance, and he agreed with Wright. Required to return to the fray, the Atlantics pulled out the victory in the bottom of the eleventh inning. Should Wright have accepted the tie?

The Ohio high school hockey state championship game last weekend ended in a tie. The championship game? You would think that winner-takes-all must prevail when it comes to a trophy and a banner to hang in the school gymnasium. The two teams tried to play a game that resulted in one winner and one loser, but fate would have it otherwise. It was tied 1-1 after the regulation three periods and overtime commenced. And the overtimes kept coming with lots of chances to score, but no goals. Cleveland's St. Ignatius and Sylvania Northview were ready to start overtime number eight when the commissioner of the Ohio State Athletic Association called the game a tie, expressing concern for the safety of the players. The two high schools were named co-champions. Does that mean each school can hang half a banner?

Ties used to be common in the NHL until 2005 when the League instituted the shootout that always ends the game. Someone will score on the penalty shots and someone will miss. Hockey rules at the secondary school level across the country, however, do not contain a provision for a shootout, and so the kids kept playing and playing.

The American ethos makes victory essential. The scoreboard matters, not how hard you play or how earnest your effort. Everyone shakes hands at the end of a match, but only half the players are smiling. Only the Olympic Games award medals for being second and third. It may be great to make it to the Super Bowl, but unless your team prevails, that joy dissipates when the clock ends the match and your team is not on top.

It is true that an NFL game can still end in a tie although that happens infrequently. The teams play an overtime period, and that is almost always sufficient to decide the outcome. Ties in the NFL used to be quite common before 1974 when the overtime period was instituted. (In the previous four seasons there had been a combined total of 29 ties.)

There is a saving grace inherent in losing made famous by the Brooklyn Dodgers. "Wait 'til next year" rang out from Ebbets Field almost on an annual basis until 1955 when the "Bums" won the Series against their hated Yankees. (The club had won the National League championship - but lost the World Series -- nine times before that World Series victory.) Losing was the predicate to winning!

Those kids from Ohio should have had the chance to lose as well as win. Was it really much more dangerous to play an eighth overtime period than the seven extra periods they had already played? Everyone was exhausted. Someone would eventually have become lucky and slipped a goal behind Northview's goalie David Marsh or St. Ignatius' net minder Dylan McKeon. The longer a game goes, the more likely it is that there will be a resolution.

We may wish that "how you play the game" would mean more than it does in sports. Victory, however, is essential to sports well played. The joy of a championship, of course, only lasts until the parade has concluded. Then it is time to start thinking about next season.

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