Many have hang-ups about September call-ups

There’s a good chance at least one of baseball’s six pennant races will be decided by a player you’ve never heard of.

And Dodgers Manager Joe Torre says that’s not right.

“It’s unfair,” he insists.

But it has happened before. The Detroit Tigers lost a division title on the final weekend a few years back when a player just up from double A, used as a pinch-runner, scored the tying run with two out in the ninth inning. The Tigers wound up losing the game — and the pennant — in extra innings.

Then there was the time the Angels promoted an extra reliever and a slap-hitting speedster to their roster for the final weeks of the season. Francisco Rodriguez and Chone Figgins wound up helping the Angels clinch a wild-card berth en route to their only World Series title.

The common element in both stories is the time-honored but totally archaic rule that allows major league teams to expand their rosters from 25 to 40 players each Sept. 1. As a result, teams play the first five months of the season under one set of rules and the final month — the pennant stretch — under a different set.

No other sport changes its most important rule — the one determining who can play — during the season. Which is why Milwaukee Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin has long argued for it to be changed.

“You certainly are going to be able to create many matchups in September that you’re not able to create any other time — pinch-running, situational bunting — that could impact the game,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia says. “It certainly can change some things.”

Like the way a game is managed. Why save a pinch-hitter early in the game if you have another five sitting on your bench? Why save a left-hander in the bullpen when you have three more waiting?

“It’s very tough playing against those teams,” Torre says. “Especially in our league, where part of it is you’re trying to run your opponents out of players.”

Two contenders, the Reds and Phillies, lost extra-inning games last week after running out of position players, forcing them to use pitchers either in the outfield or to pinch-hit. That won’t happen next month.

“You’re not going to be able to do that,” Torre says. “And basically you can get knocked out of the pennant race by a guy who played double A or something and has had four at-bats in the big leagues.”

That’s why Torre says he’d like to see the rule modified. His plan would give teams the option of calling up as many as 15 minor leaguers for the final month but would limit managers to activating only 25 a game. The NHL has a similar rule: Teams are allowed to carry 23 players on their rosters but must declare before each game which 20 are eligible to take the ice.

“The way it is right now,” Torre says, “the teams that are fighting for a pennant, it’s very, very difficult.”

Once upon a time the rule had a purpose. When organizations had more than a dozen minor league affiliates and hundreds of players under contract, September call-ups gave teams a chance to evaluate prospects in person before deciding what to do with them. But now, with video and scouting reports available from every game, teams already have a wealth of information on their minor leaguers.

Today the rule is often used as a reward for a good season in the minors and to see how certain players handle the pressure of the major leagues.

“And also to help if we have a weakness,” Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel says with a wink.

De Jon Watson, the Dodgers’ director of player development, likes September call-ups, saying there’s a difference between playing in small, empty minor league parks and multi-decked big league stadiums.

“You want to see how they’ll react being in that environment,” he says.

Yet it will be a different environment than the one that existed a week ago. Nearly half the 30 major league teams will enter September with a shot at the postseason and the opponents they’ll be facing won’t be the ones they played just a week ago. The playing field, in effect, has changed.

“What it changes as much as anything is you don’t know some of the guys,” Cincinnati Manager Dusty Baker says. “You’re taught to get the ball down, and [what if] the guy’s a low-ball hitter? You have to depend on somebody’s word in the minor leagues that has seen him.

“The whole time I was playing and managing, you don’t like to face some young starter if you don’t know him. By the time you’ve figured him out, he’s already out of the ballgame.”

Baker, by the way, likes the rule. Has to, he says, because the first three years he played in the majors he did so as a September call-up.

“It’s part of the game. You have to do more homework,” says Baker, whose team is leading a tight division race, one that could be decided by a player still in the minor leagues.

“I just hope,” Baker says, “that our guys that we call up are better than the guys they call up.”

Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this report.