Making Baseball Better

Originally Published: February 2nd, 9th & 15th, 2011

Let’s face it, baseball is no longer America’s National Pastime and hasn’t been for quite a while now.  Likely never to regain its dominance ever again.

It’ll never become more popular than football because it does a terrible job of adapting to what our culture has become.  Most people cannot sit through a 3+ hour baseball game; but it’s impossible to make them shorter.  In fact, we’re likely heading into the age of making them longer for the simple reason that Instant Replay WILL be a major part of baseball in the next 20 years.  Too many mistakes by too many bad umpires will force the issue.  And the Old Guard who’s been ruling over the sport, dictating its policies of protecting the “human element” … they will die.  Fresh blood will come in and things will change.

But really, things won’t change THAT much.  If the Gripe A. is “Games Are Too Long”, well, that’s impossible to fix.  They’re not going to make the games all 6 or 7 innings (you know how many relievers that would put out of a job?).  They’re not going to make it two outs per inning.  Nor would they re-raise the mound (which would actually be the most sensible option of the three) because that would give pitchers too much of an advantage and for as crazy as it sounds (considering people DO think games are too long), most people would rather watch a 10 to 9 slugfest than a 1 to 0 pitchers duel.

I should stop here and say that when I’m saying “people” or “most people”, I’m not talking about “Baseball Junkies”.  You know, the guys who WILL watch 3 hours of baseball.  Who WILL watch all or most of the (insert favorite team here)’s games.  I’m talking about the casual fan.  Or the non-fan who COULD be a casual or diehard fan if the game would only bend to the will of the uninterested.

See, Major League Baseball is like the tobacco companies.  Their goal is to always be recruiting new fans (smokers), but they’re doing next to nothing to make this happen (instead, they’re just burning through the fans they have now until they die, when they’ll eventually become a fringe sport).  And unlike tobacco companies, who don’t have NEAR the power they had 50 years ago, baseball could actually DO something about their predicament.

If “Games Are Too Long” is Gripe A, then “There Are Too Many Games” is a close Gripe B.  Of course, there’s absolutely nothing you’re going to do about that one either, because the owners are too greedy as it is.  They’re not giving up home games, ticket sales, concession money, television revenue, or any other way they break the bank on this sport.  But, think about it:  there ARE too many games!  This sport takes up 6 calendar months of the year JUST for its regular season.  Tack on another month and a half for the post-season and ANOTHER month and a half for Spring Training, and you’re looking at 9 months of the year of baseball baseball baseball.  If you’re a sports fan with nothing else better to do, then obviously you don’t care.  You’ll watch how much you want to watch and that’ll be that.  But, to the new recruits, that’s a daunting commitment.

And who are these new recruits?  Well, the obvious answer is Children & Teenagers.  Children are creatures who are fascinated by just about anything, but they get bored just as easily.  Going to a first baseball game is a pretty important memory for most baseball fans out there, so that’s why stadiums like Safeco cater so much to the child element.  You want the child to have a positive experience so they’ll want to come back again and again (and to watch with their parents at home, hopefully to become a lifelong fan down the line).  Show the kids a bad time, they’ll lose interest and latch on to the next big obsession in their lives.

Teenagers are almost exactly the same, except who they like is often dictated by who their friends like.  Inevitably, their friends like WINNERS.  Which is why you see so many Yankees and Red Sox fans in so many cities.  These chickenfuckers don’t think it’s cool to lose 100 games two out of three years; they think it’s cool to play for championships!  To have All Stars on their team.  To see their favorite players and their favorite teams on Sportscenter night-in and night-out.

Obviously, this isn’t the case across the board.  Because most teenagers don’t give two shits about baseball to begin with, because they DO have better things to do with their lives.  Like the eternal focus on getting laid and otherwise disobeying their parents (or, you know, just hanging out playing video games).  Teenagers are the ones you want anyway.  Children are easy to wrangle in for a baseball team.  Losing them as teenagers is the problem.  Because baseball isn’t as cool as basketball or football.  Baseball is this over-long, over-boring thing that’s pretty much a notch above school and little else.

Unless the home team can produce a winner.  When the Mariners were good, all you saw were those navy hats with the big S in the middle.  When we had Griffey and the gang, the Mariners WERE cool.  Unfortunately, they haven’t been cool for a while now.  And as a result, those hats are a rare sight.

I would say Gripe C. is a little tougher to put into words, but it boils down to “The Talent Is Too Diluted”.  Which is nuts, because we have like 9,000 rounds in every baseball draft (and that’s not taking into account all the foreign players who all sign as free agents).  But, there you have it.  There are too many bad teams out there and not enough good talent to make them better.  11 teams in 2010 couldn’t even win 80 games!  That’s bad!  When you’ve got teams losing upwards of 60% of their games (over the course of 162 games in 6 months of the year), who has the stamina to continue watching past May?

But, there you go again:  what are you going to do about it?  You can’t just go around contracting teams because they lose a bunch of games.  Contraction doesn’t just happen over night!  If not contraction, then what?  If I’m right about Major League Baseball losing support in droves, if they’re unable to recruit new fans (at least, at the rate the NFL and other sports are increasing their fanbases), then it would stand to reason that fewer and fewer kids will be PLAYING baseball.  Instead, they’ll turn to the more popular sports, or the more up-and-coming sports.

Baseball is a dying beast, lumbering through the woods, smashing into giant redwoods, knocking itself unconscious every few feet.  And the biggest problem is:  it doesn’t know any better.  It CAN’T change because it doesn’t know HOW to change.

Baseball is essentially the same as its ever been over the course of the last century, only the stakes are more important financially.  Which is why we’ve seen a rise in specialists:  relievers & closers & pinch hitters & defensive replacements.  It’s why we’ve seen a decline in starters’ production; you have to cut their innings and overall appearances in order to preserve their arms for as long as possible.  With the athletes being as big and strong as fast as ever, burning out your best players is the last thing you want to do.  Injuries lead to defeats.  Pile up too many defeats and that leads to a loss in revenue.  A loss in revenue means managers and GMs get fired.

In that sense, baseball has evolved over the last 100 years, but the game itself, how its played, the bulk of the rules, the number of games and players and teams … they don’t adapt with the times.  They just get bigger and longer and dumber.

***

So, just what in the hell are we going to do to improve the sport of professional baseball?  Well, I’ve got some crackpot ideas that I’d like to share with you now, starting with the Majors.

First and foremost, something I brought up in the Milton Bradley post that kinda got this whole thing rolling, you’ve GOT to have a hard cap and take away those guaranteed contracts.  It’s just a must.  For the last two years, the Super Bowl has been the most-watched television show in the history of television; you could say football is pretty popular in this country!  So, we’re going to follow their lead a little bit and try to get some of that parity the kids are talking about nowadays.

And don’t get me started Larry Stone & Others about how there’s already parity in baseball.  I don’t want to hear it!  As long as there are teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox out there out-spending by the truckload to get the players smaller market teams can’t afford, there will never be the kind of parity in baseball like there is in football.

The NFL rewards shrewd drafting and true team-building over mid-season trades and over-spending for free agents.  In baseball, you just let the draft fall where it falls and if you’re one of the Goliaths you can pluck away the best guys with your fat, sweaty fingers and mush them into your own pocket.  Take a look at the most recent World Series champion:  how many of the major contributers for the San Francisco Giants were drafted by the team?  Now, look at the Super Bowl champion:  how many Packers have been with Green Bay their entire careers?  Big fucking difference.

I’m not even calling for a hard cap just as a Seattle fan.  Look at teams like Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Toronto, Baltimore … once-proud franchises who don’t have a chance in bloody hell of ever seriously contending again (unless, of course, they change ownership and bring in some fresh faces willing to spend the beaucoup bucks it takes to make it in this league).

The lack of guaranteed contracts kinda goes without saying, but I’ll do it again anyway.  Every team has some dead-ass weight dragging down its payroll; why not have the ability to jettison that dead-ass weight in lieu of someone who ISN’T a total drain on your organization?  Or, how about this:  at the very least, be able to make one exception per calendar year to drop someone with little-to-no financial backlash.  Call it the Carl Pavano Exception, if you like.  Did you just sign someone to a multi-year, $100+ million contract?  Did he post a 6.00 ERA and lose you 14 games in his first season?  Well, just give him the ol’ Carl Pavano Exception and POOF, like that he’s gone!

It would be the reverse of the Franchise Tag in the NFL.  And it would be outstanding!

Now, to throw the players a bone a little bit, I say we expand everyday rosters to 30 players.  It just makes good sense!  You get to have bigger benches to pinch hit and whatnot; bigger bullpens to play around with; and most importantly, more depth for when those nagging injuries start to take hold.  You know what I’m talking about, someone pulls a muscle or starts having back spasms – but instead of actually going on the DL, because you never know when he might be able to play again, you just sit him for a week to 10 days until finally you have to retroactively put him on the DL because you’re so desperate for a warm body you need ANYONE to fill his space.  It happens all year, every year with every God damn team and I’m sick of it.  Having 5 extra guys on your team affords you the luxury of sitting players for a week at a time without totally dragging the team down.

My next major change would rattle baseball to its core:  I propose reducing the number of baseball teams in the Major Leagues to 20.  10 teams per league, with the bottom 10 falling out of the Major Leagues entirely.  I’ll get into what happens to those last 10 teams in the next section, but suffice it to say they will still exist in some capacity.

Reducing the number of teams (and trimming the fat, as it were) will make the competition that much more fierce among the remaining MLB participants.  You won’t have that cakewalk series against Pittsburgh to fall back on and pad your win totals.  Or, you know, if you’re St. Louis, you won’t have Pittsburgh, Chicago, Houston, or Milwaukee to fall back on and pad your win totals (all four were among the bottom 10 teams in the majors last season).  In this scenario, the cream really will rise to the top; and the so-so teams will plummet like the sacks of shit they are.

So, 10 teams per league … and no divisions.  That’s right!  Playoff teams will be the top 4 teams in each league, period.  This also brings a much-needed return to the Balanced Schedules of yore.  Who could possibly think it’s fair that the Blue Jays have to play upwards of 20 games against the Yankees AND the Red Sox every year; meanwhile whoever’s hot in the AL West only plays those teams 6-9 times?  What do they have to look forward to?  MAYBE one of those two juggernauts will suffer a whole rash of injuries (in other words, so they have ONE down year out of ten).

No, fuck that.  Everyone plays everyone else the same number of games.  And speaking of which:  we reduce the number of games as well.  We can have 22 weeks of games, but everyone gets at least one day off per week to travel or rest or whatever.  Maybe this way, our best players won’t be so broken and battered down by season’s end.  We’ll have 6 games per week (except for the All Star Week, obviously, when there will only be 4 games*), AND we’ll have a triumphant return of scheduled double-headers.  Because it’ll give teams an extra day off per week, and hell, the fans just love them some double-headers!  They’re awesome, and since teams will have 30 players (and all those off-days), it’s not like double-headers will be killing our athletes.

* – I haven’t exactly done the math on this, so we’ll give or take a few games here or there to make the schedules balanced

That just leaves the playoffs, which I’ve mostly gone over.  We’ll keep the 5-game first round series, followed by the 7-gamers the rest of the way.  We WILL limit your off-days in the playoffs, though.  I don’t care how television has to schedule it, but this is the way it’s going to be.  We’ll retain the one day off per week from the regular season, but in the 5-game series that day comes before Game 5.  For the other travel day, well, we’ll just have to schedule a day game for Game 2 like they do in the regular season now.  Travel at night, play the next night.  It won’t take a month and a half to get through my fucking playoffs!

And without the division system, it won’t just be the team who catches fire, but it’ll be the BEST team who catches fire.  You won’t be able to argue that an inferior division winner got into the playoffs over a better team.  Top 4 records per league, end of story.

***

We touched on some of my hair-brained ideas in the previous section; well, here’s where it’s gonna get strange.  Up is down, night is day kind of strange.

I’m going to need an open mind out of you people.

You’ll remember from Part II that we reduced the number of Major League teams to 20.  So … what the hell happened to the bottom 10?

First, let me be clear, I do NOT believe that contraction is a good thing.  I think, in certain instances, conctraction might HELP; spreading out the talent in a sport to a fewer number of teams will improve quality of play and, hopefully, increase parity.  But, that doesn’t mean I like it or would actively campaign for it.  Not after going through losing a team like the Sonics.  I don’t care if the team has been in that city for 40 years or 4, no fanbase should have to go through that.  Jacksonville may not be able to sell out their football stadium NOW, but give a fanbase time to settle in.  Time to grow.  And for Christ’s sake, give it a winner!  See what a winner does for your team’s ticket sales …

In fact, under my system of New + Improved Baseball, we won’t be contracting at all.  Rather, we’ll be ADDING two teams.  One in Portland and for the hell of it, one in Albuquerque.  Portland because they’ve waited too long and been too deserving of a pro baseball club (not to mention to give the Mariners a REAL geographic rival, instead of the stupid San Diego makes-no-sense rival).  And Albuquerque because the West still needs another team and I’d rather have it in the Southwest than to give California yet another organization.  I would also accept San Antonio, Utah, or Las Vegas; but for the sake of this argument, I’ll go with Albuquerque.

So, with the Majors including only 20 teams … what the hell happens to the bottom 12???

I hereby present to you, the 4-A League!

It’s a minor league, one level above AAA (don’t really want to write it as AAAA Baseball), and it’s going to include the worst 12 teams from the Major Leagues.  We’ll split it into two divisions, six teams per, and each division will follow the respective rules of its parent league in the Majors (in other words, there will be an AL division comprising the bottom 4 AL teams and the 2 new teams in Portland and Albuquerque and an NL division comprising the bottom 6 NL teams).

If we went by the 2010 finish, the 4-A NL Division would look like this:

1. Milwaukee
2. Houston
3. Chicago
4. Washington
5. Arizona
6. Pittsburgh

And the 4-A AL Division would look like this:

1. Cleveland
2. Kansas City
3. Baltimore
4. Seattle
5. Portland
6. Albuquerque

Even though it should be pretty obvious, I’ll tell you why this would be a good thing.  Many of these teams are bad and have been bad for a long time.  The playoff drought for Pittsburgh, Washington, Kansas City, and Baltimore alone would make your head hurt (and just imagine the agony if you were actually a FAN of one of those teams).  If MLB keeps things the same, the way they are right now with respect to salaries and such, you can bank on those four teams never again contending for a World Series championship.  Ever.  Unless they get purchased by a guy with bottomless pockets; and really how long could a fan reasonably wait for a white knight like that to show up?

To take the weakest of the teams out of the gene pool, it would not only improve the quality of play in the Majors, but it would give these bottom-feeders a chance to compete against competition more its own size.  And, in a way, it’ll give these teams something almost as important as a World Series to compete for (more on that later).

The regular season in the 4-A League will be comprised of 21 weeks.  15 weeks where you play within your division (every team plays every team 3 series per season) and 6 weeks of inter-league play (playing everyone in the opposing league one series).  Every series will be 4 games long and they’ll all be on weekends.  Yes, that’s going to cut into ticket sales, but you might as well get rid of the weekday games and just play them Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (with a double-header per week).  Create a demand for baseball by reducing the amount it’s available to the public.  Supply & Demand, bitches!

Even though there are so few teams, we’re still going to shoe-horn in a playoff.  Top two teams in each division play a 5-game series that will take us to the 4-A World Series.

Here’s the kicker:  both teams who make the 4-A World Series will be gained entrance into the Major Leagues the following season.  Oh yeah!  It’s like the way they play soccer over in Europe (or maybe just England … I dunno, I don’t really DO research on soccer, in case you didn’t know).  Where will we make room for the two 4-A teams who make it into the Majors?  Elementary:  the bottom two teams in the Majors (one in each league) will drop into the 4-A League the following year.

Not only does this system give the teams in 4-A something HUGE to play for; but it also gives the worst teams in the majors something to play for:  avoiding the abyss.

You might be asking:  why, if both teams advance, would they want to play the 4-A World Series?  Well, to sweeten the pot, the winner of the 7-game series gets an automatic 2-years within the Majors.  So, no matter how badly the winner of the 4-A World Series does the following season, they’ll be guaranteed to stay an extra season in the Majors.  In this brave new world I’ve created, believe me, nothing will be more important than getting that additional second season.

The final baseball variable I can think of is the MLB Draft.  Well, what with the advent of the 4-A League, you can’t simply keep the draft order as it is now.

I still want to give the bottom feeders something of an advantage, but I’m one to discourage tanking.  So, here’s another added perk of winning the 4-A World Series:  winner gets the #1 overall draft pick.  Oh yes.  Picks 1-12 will go to from best to worst in the 4-A League (based on playoff finish for the top four picks, followed by regular season finish for the rest).  Then, picks 13-32 will go from worst to best in the Major Leagues, based solely on regular season finish (after all, with the bottom two teams falling to 4-A, tanking has already been eliminated without consideration for draft order whatsoever).

Let’s see, what have I overlooked?  Well, in 4-A there will only be 25 players per team (instead of the 30 I’ve decided to give the Major League teams).  I’m sure there are others, but I think I’ve given this hypothetical scenario enough scrutiny.  It’s not like any of these changes would actually happen!  First and foremost, you’re not reducing the number of baseball games played, EVER.  The money wrapped up in things like ticket sales, concessions, and souvenirs would make it impossible; no one is going to vote on the option that makes them LESS money (even if, in the long run, it would be better for their sport).  Sports owners are like investment bank CEOs, they’ll never actively do what’s best for the Greater Good.

It would take a dictator to implement these changes.  I would like to be that dictator.  Just give me that chance!