Melky Cabrera left a tiny opening for Bud Selig. If the commissioner wants to prevent a batting championship from going to a player serving a 50-game suspension for failing a drug test, he can do it without completely erasing history.
"We'll see how it all plays out," Selig said Wednesday in New York. "We generally don't interfere in that process."
The commissioner may be hoping that Andrew McCutchen turns scalding hot in the next 10 days and overtakes Cabrera's .346 average to nab the National League title. But there's another solution within his grasp: Cabrera ended his season with 501 plate appearances, one shy of the number needed to qualify for the batting title in a 162-game season. However, an MLB loophole known as Rule 10.22(a) adjusts the stats of any player who falls short, adding the missing plate appearances but no hits to his final totals. If the player's batting average still leads a league, then he gets the crown.
Cabrera's single missing plate appearance invites Selig to close the loophole. In fact, it begs him to make the change. Cabrera came so close to reaching 502 and making his numbers ironclad. But he didn't get there -- baseball's investigators unraveled an elaborate scheme behind Cabrera's appeal just in time to leave a window open for the commissioner, with a sliver of light peeking through.
"You can't change records because once you get into that it would never stop," Selig said Wednesday, restating a long-held position on whether statistics of the so-called steroid era should be rewritten. "It would create more problems than it would solve."
He's right about that. Baseball doesn't give him a lever to pull and revoke Barry Bonds' final eight home runs and his place atop the all-time standings. The seizure of Hank Aaron's record can't be undone. It happened, and everyone saw it.
But the plate appearance due to be bestowed on Cabrera is a phantom. It never happened. He did not step into the box to face 90-mph missiles 502 times this year.
Rule 10.22 (a) hasn't always been part of baseball history. It has been intermittently applied in the 1950s, according to an MLB spokesman, but it first appeared in the rulebook in 1967. For a 162-game season, the 502 plate-appearance requirement was an absolute standard. Before 1961, when MLB played 154 games per year, the standard was 477 plate appearances. (More accurately, the standard is 3.1 plate appearances per game played by an individual's team.)
So if Selig intervened now, he wouldn't be slashing the Mona Lisa. He'd be restoring a tradition.
Tony Gwynn, the only player ever to win a batting title without making 502 plate appearances, believes otherwise.
"You already have a precedent," the Hall of Famer and San Diego State coach said by phone Thursday. "I don't think they really want to mess with that."
Gwynn, who missed four weeks in 1996 with a torn Achilles, won the seventh of his eight batting titles that season with a .353 average, which kept him in the lead even after four hitless at-bats were added to his 498 actual plate appearances. He finished ahead of Ellis Burks, who had a .344 average over 685 appearances.
"I felt uncomfortable about it, really," Gwynn said. "I wasn't really that worried about a batting title because we were trying to win a division. But I felt bad for Ellis Burks, because he led for most of the year, and here I come off the disabled list and basically sneak one in from the back door."
But Gwynn doesn't think MLB should change well-established policy to do an end-around on a tangential problem.
"If they did change it, it would be because he's suspended," Gwynn said. "The reason why wouldn't be adding at-bats."
He makes a strong point: A change could yield other outrages in the future. A rookie might come along two months into the season, hit 30 points higher than anyone else and lose the batting title because his team miscalculated when to bring him up. Or the next .400 hitter could lose to a .322 guy because he got hurt and fell just a few appearances short.
But Rule 10.22 (a) provides special consideration. A player who misses time because of his own bad behavior, whether it's using synthetic testosterone or spitting at an umpire, doesn't deserve a break. Selig can edit the policy accordingly.
He has rewritten other traditions very quickly, turning the All-Star Game into the arbiter of home-field advantage in the World Series, insisting that a rain-shortened game could not decide the 2008 Series and fast-tracking an extra round of playoffs this year.
The Cabrera situation isn't precisely analogous, but it's not far off. Let's remember, too, that he delayed punishment, buying extra time and plate appearances, with some particularly unsavory manipulations. After he tested positive, an associate went to great lengths to set up an appeal on the grounds that Cabrera had unwittingly bought supplements tainted with illicit testosterone. A fake dealers' network, including at least one bogus website to peddle the supplements, sprouted as a cover story.
Only when MLB's investigators discovered the ruse did Cabrera issue a contrite apology and accept his punishment. If he had done that promptly after the test, he would have lost at least two more weeks of playing time, requiring extra phantom 0-fers to adjust his average. The batting title would have become much farther out of reach.
Technically, Cabrera could have regained the time at the end of the season, but maintaining his average would have required the Giants to put him in the lineup as if nothing had changed, and then his stroke would have to return after 50 games in dry dock.
Instead, the outcome rests with McCutchen and Selig. If the player's bat doesn't deliver, Selig finally has a tool to prevent doping damage to the record books. The only question is whether he wants to use it.
Note: After this column appeared, CSN Bay Area reported that Cabrera would be declared ineligible to win the batting title. The column proposed that Rule 10.22 (a), which allows players lacking the requisite 502 plate appearances to increase that total artificially, not apply to suspended players.
According to the CSN report, MLB and the players' association agreed to amend the rule after Cabrera, serving a 50-game doping suspension, reached out to say he did not want to take the title from a more deserving hitter. The amendment is described as a 2012 arrangement, but like other points of consensus between MLB and the union, it will undoubtedly serve as a guideline for the application of Rule 10.22 (a) to suspended players in the future.