THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
I love baseball. From the time pitchers and catchers report until the final out of the World Series, my life revolves around baseball, which doesn't say much for my actual career as a musician. So naturally, you'd think I want more of it in anyway possible, right?
In theory, yes. In a perfect world, I think Spring Training games should begin around Valentine's Day and the World Series shouldn't end until close to Thanksgiving. I'm sure many of my relationships would suffer, especially since I plan most of my life around watching the Yankees, but my loved ones would understand. And if they didn't, I'd get new loved ones.
(That was a joke, by the way.)
However, in reality, the issue of the length of the baseball season is much more complex than that. Over the past few months, the number of complaints from teams and players about the ridiculousness of the schedule have increased, and rightfully so. Teams that play on Sunday night at 8pm in one city shouldn't have to play on Monday at 1pm in another city. Teams that play on the west coast that have to fly east following that game should not have to play that day. Balance and sense have both left the world of baseball.
The reason for this is two-fold. First, we have a significant unbalance in the world of determining fairness during a championship season. There are too many non-economical factors that come into play, such as who plays who and how many times and where, etc. It seems that every minute detail is examined when changes are proposed to determine fairness, let alone the economic effect. The second reason is the economic factor. National television contracts, engaging match-ups, and anything else that maximizes revenue is at the forefront of this product known as baseball. The fact of the matter is that the powers that be have let the monster become too great, possibly due to the steroid era or the strike of 1994 and the decline in interest in baseball.
The good news is that this isn't a scary monster that lives under your bed. This is a reasonable monster that can be contained. But it involves a lot of sacrifice in the short-term for a hopefully better product in the long-term, and we all know that trying to tell people to make monetary sacrifices is usually met with blank stares.
Many baseball players and those associated with teams on a day-to-day basis (such as uniformed personnel, front office staff, medical staff, broadcasters, etc.) will tell you that the grind of 162 games over no more than 183 days is very difficult. It puts stress and strain on your body, both physically and mentally. You have to make so many sacrifices for your employment, whether it be keeping your body in the best possible shape or limiting time with your family. And if you think that's bad, imagine what the umpires have to go through. Unlike players, they never have a "home field." They travel for almost ten months of the entire year. Sure, they get vacation time, but their salaries are nothing compared to those of the players, nor do they get compensated for being the so-called "villains" for making calls that might go against one team.
However, the various revenue streams for baseball have actually increased significantly in the past few years thanks to one of the greatest inventions since indoor plumbing: the MLB At-Bat application. This application followed in the footsteps of another advancement in media, namely the regional sports network. Prior to these two inventions, baseball was a sport that was not easily attainable. Sure, you had the radio...if you were within their broadcast range. You had nationally broadcast games. You had the newspaper. You could go to the game for the full experience. But thanks to these, baseball has flooded the market with games. Depending on where you live, you can watch almost every single game throughout the entire season for every team!
Compare this to a sport like football. Football has become a national sport. The television contracts alone have made games accessible to fans across the country, and the advent of the NFL Sunday Ticket perpetuates that. Baseball, however, has become a regional sport. Unlike football where you could find a Green Bay Packers fan in New Jersey quite easily, you won't find a Minnesota Twins fan in Tennessee. Unless you're a fan of the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, or Red Sox, to name just a select few, fans are not spread nationally in baseball.
Consider this as well. Football has a stranglehold on the tickets to their games due to supply and demand as well as the television contracts. There are only eight home games per season per team, and if the games aren't sold out, they get blacked out in their market. Baseball has 81 home games per team, and the number of people going out to games during the regular season has dwindled, even in major markets. A sellout in baseball just doesn't occur as frequently anymore. Why? Because people can watch the entire game from the comfort of their own home. The same could be said for football as well, but there is an intangible lure of attending a football game that cannot be recreated in other sports.
We could continue to dissect each individual economical aspect of this argument, but we're going to continue to circle around to the same conclusion: if baseball wants to grow in popularity and revenue, it may have to depreciate financially in the short-term in order to make huge leaps a few years down the line.
So how do we do this?
Well, there's one big issue that has to be addressed first, and that is the possibility of expansion. If new stadiums can finally get built in the greater Oakland and Tampa Bay markets for their respective teams, then baseball's next venture will be to expand from 30 to 32 teams. So in order to propose any sort of plan for the long-term, we have to consider this inevitability and factor that into our discussion.
Let's make the assumption that the new stadium deals are done and the two teams in question will remain in their respective locations. Let's also assume that expansion is on the way, and the National League will add a team in Montreal, and the American League will add a team in Portland, Oregon. (The big rumor was that Mexico City was the target, but based on the geography of the city and how much teams would have to travel, as well as the political unrest in Mexico in general, a safer bet is to keep this team domestic. You'll see the reasoning behind Portland later when we show you the divisions.)
Now, consider some of the things that are currently in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that need to be held over or amended. ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball is the cause of one of the major concerns based on the travel and game time the following day. MLB would need to negotiate a new deal with ESPN that allows for the Sunday night match-ups to be determined during the finalization of the schedule so that adjustments can be made to give teams necessary days off following those games. Further, a stricter rule regarding days off following travel from the west coast (specifically the Pacific Time Zone) needs to be addressed. We can't have teams flying from San Diego to Chicago to play a day game. Alternatively, the teams currently have the control to set game times. If that control was given to MLB, many of the problems would simply disappear.
We could also go on about what else is in the CBA and needs to be addressed, but if you try to read and dissect the CBA, you will either automatically become a lawyer or start to bleed out of your ears. Yes, it's that long and complicated. So just trust me.
Realignment would need to occur to satisfy the new 16-team leagues. Here's my proposal for divisions:
If you notice, many of the teams are aligned so that natural rivalries are in the corresponding divisions. The Yankees and the Mets are both in the East, along with the Orioles and Nationals as well as the Blue Jays and the Expos. The Cubs and White Sox are both in the North, along with the Indians and Reds (the Ohio series). The Rays and Marlins are both in the South, along with the Royals and Cardinals (the Missouri series). And in the west, the Angels and Dodgers as well as the Athletics and Giants are maintained. (Also maintained are the Padres and Mariners who formulate a rivalry since they share a Spring Training facility.)
Regarding the schedule for the regular season, this is where people will begin to disagree with me. Two major things need to happen. First, the number of regular season games will be reduced to 156, which means each team will lose three home games. Second, the "cross-town rivalry" Interleague Series will be eliminated and only played during the regular season once every four years.
If we use the Yankees are our example, then the makeup of the schedule starts like this:
-The Yankees will play 20 games against each of the teams in their division: the Red Sox, Orioles, and Blue Jays. There will be six series for each match-up: three at home and three on the road. Two of the three at each location will be 3-game series, and one will be a 4-game series. This totals 60 games.
-The Yankees will play six games against every other team in the American League: three at home and three on the road. This totals 72 games.
-The Yankees will finally play one division from the National League for Interleague Play. This will rotate each year, and they will not play the same division twice until they have played each division once. They will play six games against each team in that division: three at home and three on the road. This totals 24 games.
Grand total: 156 games.
By eliminating the Yankees vs. Mets Subway Series and only playing it once every four years, it builds excitement and juice and momentum. It plays into the supply and demand that will drive ticket sales based on the rarity. Baseball is so over-saturated with these money-making match-ups that they lose their luster after a while.
So how would the playoffs work?
We would have to resort to a system where 8 teams from each league make the playoffs. The division winners would be ranked as the top four seeds in each league, and the second place teams would be the Wild Cards, ranked fifth through eighth based on winning percentage.
Now we expand the playoffs so that the first round is a best-of-three, which features 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5. The home-field would be in a 1-1-1 format with a travel day in between each game. Perhaps we'd call this the Wild Card Series? The ALWS and NLWS?
The second round would feature the remaining teams in a best-of-five series, currently known as the Division Series.
The final two rounds would be best-of-seven.
The most important part of the playoff expansion, however, would lie in the revenue sharing. The current revenue sharing system works, but it would have to be amended if each team is going to give up three home games per season. Maybe a percentage of the revenue from the first round is distributed to the teams that didn't make the playoffs?
There are numerous benefits of this as well that go beyond the economic benefits. The amount of days off would increase in both the regular season and the playoffs. Pitchers would have a better opportunity to rest and not get pushed into ridiculous amounts of work, since we spend so much time worrying about them now.
The final controversy here, however, would be the reduction of salaries for players. If players are playing six less games per regular season, it stands to reason that their average annual salary can also reduce. They'll make it back based on the fact that more teams make the playoffs, but it evens out the fact that the price we pay for baseball can get a little too high from time to time.
Look, I'm a moderate who leans to the right economically, but there has to be something said about the philosophy of our star athletes (who are essentially entertainers) getting paid more than the actual heroes on this planet, such as our soldiers and veterans, our educators, or our fire/police/EMT personnel. I don't mean to sound like my heart is bleeding, but those are actual heroes, not people who can hit a ball 400 feet.
As a player myself, I know how difficult it is to play baseball. Hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do athletically well. You're hitting a round ball with a round bat that's coming at you at almost 100mph on a downward plane, and you don't even know the trajectory the ball will take (if it's a fastball or curveball). You have to take extra special care of yourself, travel at ungodly hours, and not see your family a lot. I'm not saying a large salary isn't reflective of the work done, and I'm also not saying that we shouldn't let the market work itself out. But there is cause for conversation there. Hell, it's evident even within the sport itself: umpires get paid far too less than players at all levels. And minor league players get paid far too less than major league players.
Okay, I'll get off the soap box now...
The conclusion here is that change is coming to baseball. Baseball has an opportunity to go light years ahead of other sports if they play their cards right. A mix of tradition and modernity will ultimately make baseball a powerhouse industry in the 21st Century. But growing pains will be inevitable, and we can't be afraid of them if we're going to make this sport come out on top.