In one of my favorite Simpsons episodes of all time, the 16th Episode of Season Four, entitled Duffless, Homer reminisces about the time he first drank beer, passed out while listening to Queen, and is taunted by ubiquitous sights of beer. He later comes to realize the fact that watching baseball sober is boring, and that beer commercials falsely state that beer transforms angry feminists into attractive swimsuit models who cling to ordinary men (I know one man that sued a beer company over this. No, really). In one scene, a sober Homer is left to ponder the lack of excitement in baseball as the “action” is interrupted by a beach ball bounding aimlessly across the field.
To many, this accurately captures the state of baseball today, as TV ratings continue to drop for the sport and kids across America choose to play sports other than America’s Past time time. With my love for baseball the motivation for this piece, I have compiled a list of 10 improvements that I believe would make baseball a better game without selling out the baseball purist (that means no crazy ideas like floating divisions or on the field ballet dancers).
1. Reduce the number of regular season games to 154. For the die-hard baseball fan, this is a non-starter, as he or she can’t get enough of America’s past time. But for the rest of America, the season is just too long. I mean, is anyone really watching game #47 of the Washington Nationals’ season? Won’t this effect the records in baseball? Sort of, though one needs to put this in perspective—baseball has only been playing the expanded 162 games since the 1960’s. And at any rate, I’d argue that the use of PEDs has completely destroyed the record books anyway (how many home runs would Bonds have hit if his feet didn’t grow an extra shoe size in his late 30’s? And just how many strikeouts would Roger the question dodger and Mr. Splittee have if he didn’t bare his ass regularly to another man?) The real problem with the 162 game schedule is that it adversely impacts the quality of the playoffs, the only time the sport gets serious TV ratings (and thus, the time when you can market your sport to the youth of America). In 1997, the Florida Marlins beat the Cleveland Indians in seven games while kids were outside rolling up snowmen. Ridiculous. And this is necessary in order to…
2. Change the baseball playoff structure. Let’s face it, the real excitement (and the TV ratings) are in the playoffs, so let’s have more of these games and less of the scintillating Pirates-Marlins mid-season match-ups. And for the baseball purist, the MLB playoff model never made any sense. I have never understood why the MLB regular season is a 400 meter relay while the playoffs is a 40 yard dash. The first round is the best of five, meaning it’s a race to 3 wins. Since every team wins or loses three games in a row at some point during the season, the only meaningful way to preserve the value of the season long marathon is to increase the number of playoff games while reducing the number of off days in between games as much as possible. This would eliminate the possibility that a team could ride two stud pitchers to a championship, as the Arizona Diamondbacks did in 2001. It will also allow MLB to get through their playoffs at a steady clip (none of the silliness of the NBA playoffs that seem to run from February to August).
Owners have consistently gone on record objecting to the reduction of the season because of the lost gate receipts and TV revenue associated with eliminating what would amount to 128 games. However, increasing the total number of playoff games is about better marketing the sport long term and would ultimately generate more interest for the remaining regular season games. And since it is the playoff games that the fans really tune in to watch, let’s make the World Series the best of nine while we’re at it. While the purist may initially be reluctant to change the tradition of a seven game World Series (possibly momentarily forgetting that the World Series was once a 9 game affair), adding two additional games to the Fall Classic will work to preserve the integrity of the baseball playoff system.
Finally, the playoff format needs to reward division winners over the wild card team. As things stand right now, there is very little difference between winning the division and earning a wild card berth. First, eliminate the rule that a team can’t open round one of the playoffs against a division opponent. The team with the most wins should play the playoff team with the fewest, regardless of division affiliation. Second, the wild card team should have to play all of their games on the road. While this isn’t perfect, it’s an improvement.
Yankees-Red Sox is one of the best rivalries in all of sports. But do they really need to play 19 times?
3. Fix the Yankees/Red Sox dominance problem by putting a new team in each of those markets. As my readers know, I absolutely loathe the idea of a salary cap; it does little to ensure competitive balance and is really a tool used by one side or the other to gain leverage in labor negotiations (just why exactly should the average fan care about the millionaire v. billionaire fight anyway?). One problem for baseball is the reality (or perception) that big market teams dominate the sport, with many feeling that small market teams have little or no chance to compete for a title. The Yankees and the Red Sox are the real problem according to many, because of what seems like unlimited resources. One way to limit the the big market advantage is to put another team in that market, splitting the loyalty of the fans and reducing a team’s share of the market’s total revenue. While the Yankees and the Red Sox would not be crazy about these ideas, too bad, it would be for the good of the game. And both of these cities have at one time had one more team than there present number (with the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants in New York and the Red Sox and Braves in Boston).
This also has the added benefit of relocating two teams from bad baseball markets. The alternative, contraction, though popular on all of the major sports media sites and blogs, is not realistic. That’s because the average MLB franchise is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of a half a billion dollars, and the reality is that many of the owners have teams simply because they want them. Relocating two franchises to New York and Boston would likely have the opposite problem, with franchises from cities like Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Miami, and Washington lining up for this reverse lottery. While I realize that the logistics of this might make it difficult, as teams are connected to cities, have leases with stadiums, etc, these details could be worked out.
4. Move one team to the American league, realign the divisions, and get rid of unbalanced schedules. Who organized the present MLB division structure, some drunken homeless wino? In a manner of speaking, yes, as Selig and his merry band of idiots concocted a division structure that makes a mockery of the baseball season. Why does the National League have 16 teams and the American League 14? How exactly is it fair that the AL West has only 4 teams competing for a division title and an automatic playoff berth, and the NL Central has 6 (okay, Pittsburgh is really a semi-pro team, but still)? Did all of this happen simply because the Seligs wanted the Brewers to now play in the [now clearly inferior] national league? Hey Bud, it didn’t help, the Brewers are still stinking up the joint.
Move one team over to the AL with each league having 3 divisions of five teams. While this might appear to be a scheduling problem having 15 teams in each league, this can be fixed by having one inter-league match-up every week of the season, rather than having blocks of inter league play (though you could still have blocks too). And while we’re at it, get rid of the unbalanced schedules. Fans in Cleveland, Kansas City, and Chicago would like to see marquee match-ups against the Yankees and Red Sox more that 3 times a year. Too many match-ups against the same teams is boring for the average casual fan. Don’t believe me, look at the success of inter-league play, which really features the exact same game against different teams. For the baseball purist, elimination of the unbalanced schedule will increase the chances of the best teams qualifying for the playoffs.
5. Make the two leagues uniform by having the pitcher bat AND have a DH in each league. Look, as a baseball purist, I’d simply chuck the DH as a flawed experiment. In the seventies when they implemented the DH, scoring was so low the game was dull for the average fan. Lower the mound, use a tighter wrapped baseball, artificially manufacture your sluggers in a petrie dish, and voila, instant offense. That said, the MLBPA is never going to give up on the DH, because it means 30 jobs for glorified softball players that can do little more than lumber up to the plate four times a game and swing from their heels. By making things uniform, it eliminates the endless problem that exists between the leagues when they play head to head, protects those union jobs, and brings the strategy back to the American League. I also believe the strategy implicit in having a pitcher bat (along with the increased offense of the DH) will make for a more interesting game for the casual fan.
6. Speed the games up. Today’s sports fans gravitate to the NFL and the NBA over baseball because of the pace of the action (hell, some even prefer watching cars drive around in circles for hours). Many today have a hard time watching baseball because the action is too slow, and most of this has to do with unnecessary delays during the game. The biggest culprit is the time between pitches. According to rule 8.04, a pitcher has 12 seconds to release a ball if no runner in on base. This already sounds too long to me. But last year, the average time for a pitcher to deliver a pitch with no runners on base was 27 seconds. That’s an eternity for a five year old (or my 40 year old friend with ADD). And if the pitcher isn’t freezing the hitters in their batting crouches, then there is no reason for the cat and mouse game where the hitter steps out to disrupt the pitcher or to fondle his junk., meaning that umps should regularly refuse a hitter’s time out requests. Here’s a crazy idea, play the game that we payed to watch you guys play. One internet posted suggested playing John Mayer music continuously throughout the game while the pitcher is on the mound. By the twelfth “say what you need to say,” I know I’d throw the ball quicker if I was the pitcher.
Other suggestions include stopping the catcher from going to the mound but maybe once an inning (this would both speed up the game and add an interesting strategy element), making intentional walks just one wide pitch out of the zone (when was the last time you saw a wild pitch on this play), and eliminating stupid plays like the fake to third-throw to first pick off move (that wouldn’t have even worked on the storm trooper that fell for the “this isn’t the droid that you’re looking for” line). I also would eliminate the pitching coach trip to the mound (this is just a stall tactic as it is impossible to fix a pitcher’s mechanics in a 12 second mound visit). Come to the mound, and you have to remove the pitcher. Let ’em discuss appropriate wedding gifts for teammates some other time (candlesticks make a nice gift).
7. Improve competitive balance by including international players in the draft, utilizing a rookie salary structure, and implementing a “salary floor.” It’s absolutely ridiculous that the rich teams can improve their farm teams by adding international players that are not subject to the draft. A $51 million dollar bid just to talk to a Japanese import that was rumored to throw an imaginary pitch completely undermines the point of the draft. Simply put, every player added to an organization must go through the draft, period. And I have always thought that rookie salaries in all sports are out of control. It should never be the case that a team passes on a top prospect simply because they fear that they will not be able to sign that player. This is counterproductive if the true purpose of the draft is to allow weaker franchises to improve their chances of being competitive, and it is at odds with the general American belief that people in this country ought to earn their money (pause for some reader chuckles here). Put a rookie salary structure in place that is scaled on a pick’s draft slot, and let the player earn his big pay day down the road. Finally, teams that want to take money from MLB’s redistribution of wealth program (they call it a “Luxury Tax,” I call it socialism) should be forced to spend it on salaries or give the money back. You accomplish this by setting a minimum floor that each team must spend on player salaries. If a small market owner doesn’t want to raise his payroll, then no baseball welfare for you. It was ridiculous that Carl Pohlad (the character for whom Matt Groenig styled Montgomery Burns after), one of the wealthiest of all of the owners, was pocketing the Big Stein’s money while skimping on player salaries. The idea here is to help small market teams compete, not to line the pockets of greedy billionaires.
8. Improve marketing of the game for the fans. Schedule Sunday double headers just because they are fun (and this will help you get through the season a bit quicker). Let’s play all games on Saturday during the day (and no, I don’t care about blocking out the afternoon time slot so Fox can force feed me a game of the week that I don’t want to see anyway). Open the stadiums earlier and let the fans mingle with the players and watch them work out, and give the kids regular tours of the club house hours before the game starts. Come up with more programs that allow kids to come on the field and take pictures with the players, run bases, etc. One program the Cubs used to implement was putting kids on a cleanup crew after the game (cleaning up trash in the aisles) that would allow them to earn free tickets in the future. This is a good idea. Perhaps most importantly, show your playoff and World Series games earlier so that kids on the east coast can actually see them. If the NCAA can do it for college basketball, then MLB can do it for a few playoff games each year. All of this would help increase interest for kids who are consistently choosing to play other sports.
This guy thought $2,500 for one ticket behind home plate at the new Yankee Stadium was reasonable. Do you?
9. Lower ball park ticket prices. Am I the only one that is frustrated by the fact that the average Joe can no longer afford to go to a game but maybe a few times a year? Four decent tickets, parking, dinner, and a few beers is just shy of 3 large bones, a bad entertainment value for the dollar and a reason many stadiums are a third empty or worse. And don’t even get me started on the $2,500 dollar seats behind home plate at the new Yankee stadium. Programs that charge full price for adults but give kids under a certain age will not only make the game more affordable, but help MLB market its product. I remember when the NFL was concerned about showing their games on free television; they were actually concerned that this would keep people from going to watch the games live. It actually had the opposite effect, as it worked as free advertising by getting more fans out to the stadium. Get the fans into a few more ball games, and next thing you know, they are buying cable packages, jerseys, and those stupid foam fingers. I also like the idea of having “family” and no “kid zones,” which I believe would make the experience more enjoyable for everyone (the disinterested kid that kept elbowing me in the head at my last game probably would have been better off without my litany of F bombs).
10. Remove Bud Selig as the commissioner. Remember the days when the commissioner was actually an ambassador for the game? Neither do I. Quite frankly, many of these changes will never take place because the commissioner is an elected representative of the owners interested in protecting one thing only, their immediate profit margin. This is shortsighted and is slowly destroying the best game on the planet. Could you imagine the NFL making Al Davis the commissioner? I mean, Selig’s last gig was running the Brewers [into the ground], and for this he is made the functional equivalent of baseball’s commander and chief? Apparently the Peter Principle is true–people do rise to the level of their incompetence. Well, at least this guy has had enough (he says after he climbs down from his soapbox). I would replace the commissioner with a panel that would represent everyone’s interest in the game (owners, players, and fans) to make sure that baseball is progressive in its approach to improving the sport. You know, that whole group think idea that suggests several minds are better than one. And besides, wouldn’t it be fun to see Bud Selig get fired?
The best game in the world does not need a major overhaul, just a non Terri Hatcher like facelift. There is no reason for a pitcher to hold a ball thirty seconds before pitching with two outs in the sixth inning and the bases empty. The best moments in baseball shouldn’t happen while children on the east coast are tucked in bed and catching some z’s. And baseball should do more than just pay lip service to the idea of making the ball park a true family experience, by opening up access to its players (we certainly pay them enough). Until then, get yourself another eleven dollar beer from the vendor while the fat security guy tasers a bored fan running aimlessly through the outfield. Either that, or join Homer and watch as an over paid and under worked millionaire strolls over to retrieve a bounding beach ball with all the urgency of Hanley Ramirez running down an actual ball in play.