Once upon a time there was a game unique in its concept from any other. While those outside our borders scratched their heads and tried to understand our fascination with baseball, America loved it because it was infinitely intricate in its simplicity, like America itself. Then they started to improve it . . .
“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game and do it by watching first some high-school or small-town teams”
By now you know that when Houston moves to the AL West in 2013 baseball will have two fifteen team leagues and 10 teams (33%of MLB) in a playoff series each year. Taken on their own these changes are simply another tweak; an annoying erosion of America’s game.Viewed in context with previous changes however, it’s relatively easy to see them as steps in a strategic plan to quietly change baseball beyond recognition. A slow morphing of MLB into something resembling the NFL, with more champions and playoff games than you can keep track of and more big payday’s for owners. Think I’m crazy? Read on.
A Strategic Plan in Action
“The one thing we know today is we can’t continue to do business the way we have in the past.”
Baseball owners and their commissioner envy the NFL’s success in marketing their sport and the revenue that marketing generates. They want to create that kind of revenue steam for MLB and Bud Selig is the point man and driving force of that goal. Make no mistake, unlike his predecessors this commissioner’s first priority is increasing owner profits in any way possible. Everything else must support that goal including maintaining the integrity of the game. While he wants the game to appear as clean and fair as possible – bad publicity is not good for profits – his primary objective is increasing the bottom line. (Remember the steroid issue?) Since a winning team and post season participation increase an owners’ bottom line more than anything else, his whole tenure has been dedicated to enhancing that opportunity. Like all successful businessmen he more than likely created short and long term plans to guide him towards attaining that goal. Based on what’s happened and what’s been said so far here’s what I believe the plans are and what they will lead too.
Start With Something Noncontroversial
After taking office his first major change under this theoretical set of plans was specifically designed to create more winners immediately; he divided each league into three divisions and instituted the Wildcard.
The Wildcard has been a huge success for both fans and owners and produced some memorable races. Dividing the 28 teams into three divisions per league however produced a large inequity that was easily foreseen; the would be one division in each league with only four teams. If your team is in that division they have a statistically better chance of being a part of the highly coveted post season series. It’s hard to imagine that a bottom line driven management group such as MLB would look at these simple numbers and fail to realize what would happen as a result. They must have known that resolving this anomaly while maintaining the two league, three division format could only be accomplished if MLB consisted of either 24 or 36 teams.
Let’s Just Try This And See What Happens
Initially it might have appeared that they felt that 36 was a viable option because in 1998 the third major change of Commissioner Selig’s administration occurred when MLB expanded to 30 teams. ( Yes, I know I seem to have skipped step two but stay with me and all will become clear.) One team was added to the NL and one to the AL creating two fifteen team leagues but posing a problem. With 15 team leagues one team was always without a game and the owner without income. They had thought of that too but the most logical answer from their point of view was radical and required a slow introduction in order to keep fans from revolting. So they moved the Brewers to the National league creating the 16 and 14 team leagues we have now. He had however begun the process for his eventual solution a year earlier with his second major change; introduction of interleague play in 1997. (See, I thold you I’d catch up.)
Basic math will tell you that the actual dividing of 30 teams evenly is easy enough. In and of itself that division requires no serious modifications to the game. The leagues operate under slightly different rules however and the DH poses a problem. After the trial period in the 70’s, the AL voted to retain the DH while the NL rejected it outright. The tradition heavy NL remains to this day unlikely to freely accept a DH. As long as the leagues had independent leadership and administration the NL could easily say no. While convincing the NL to change would be hard, gradually teaching the next generation of fans that the DH just a part of the game rested came with an acceptance of interleague play. That it also increased the owners bottom line in the process was an added bonus and one no doubt used to persuade reticent owners interleague was a good thing. With steps one through three complete, the plan moving along nicely and the issues it created because of the league structure will help nudge opponents closer to accepting further changes.
Reducing Bureaucracy Is Always Good Isn’t It?
While the fans could be led gradually to this unspoken goal, the league offices might not be so accepting, particularly the change adverse traditionalists in the National League. The fourth major change took care of that issue. In 2000 MLB announced the consolidation of the administrative functions of both leagues into the Commissioner’s Office, eliminating independent league presidents and management structures. This had little apparent effect on the fans who generally ignore such political machinations but it was significant in consolidating the power of the commissioner’s office so that any changes he felt necessary were more easily implemented. Think of it as a bloodless coup d’état.
About this time we started to hear over and over again that the costs of running a team compared to the revenues generated in smaller markets made it difficult for those teams to survive and compete. Obviously there weren’t many places those teams could move to in order to increase market size and income, the agonizing transition of the Expos to Washington demonstrated that. This revelation generated the great contraction non-debate in 2001. Publicly there was talk of drawing down but privately I suspect, the likelihood that owners would actually expel any of their own – no matter how good the case for doing so – was more fantasy that reality. The argument for contraction – while still accurate today – is now relegated to blogs and newspaper columns trying to fill space. With neither 36 teams or 24 teams an option how would MLB resolve the problems it created with expansion and tri-divisional play in each league? Well, there was another number that fit the need for divisional balance, the number of teams we currently – coincidentally (?) – have; 30.
As I said, league leadership knew or should have known the issues with 30 teams working in a balanced two league structure however, they sidestepped them by creating a 16 and a 14 team league and a resultant learning experience for owners, players and fans.Everyone now knew the problems and inequities that existed. The latest CBA claims to have rectified them but in reality it changes little. It does however provide the engine to drive the next step in the plan.
I’m Sure We All Agree
The Commissioner made few friends with the union during the 1994 strike but has worked diligently since then to at least create a climate of respect if not friendship between the offices. The MLBPA was persuaded to favor the Houston move because they can tell members they are addressing a serious problem their members had been upset about for years, difficult and tiring coast to coast travel. The travel issue is inherent in the current setup and unbalanced schedule. This change mitigates those quick turnarounds and long road trips by potentially reducing the number and frequency of coast to coast trips. Since everything in a labor negotiation is generally incremental and this is a step forward without disadvantages to their members, they accepted it as a positive development.
The owners were given another wildcard slot in each league meaning at least one post season game for another owner and team. While not a part of negotiations it’s important that the networks understand and like the coming changes. We all know the major networks would be happy to show the just Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies and Mets everywhere but California, so adding a playoff game that might include them and generating advertising revenue at very little increased cost was an easy sell.
What does this latest change mean looking down the road? To start with every day during the 2013 season with a full slate of games will include an interleague game somewhere – pardon me while I puke. We haven’t seen a schedule yet but have been told the number for each team will probably stay at 18. Sounds simple enough. Except that those interleague games will be played from April through the September pennant races. That is sure to cause controversy eventually.
The current unbalanced schedule resulted from teams complaining that they were playing outside their division (but within their league) during the last critical weeks of the season. Imagine the outcry when teams are not only playing outside their division but also outside of their league. What if this year the Red Sox were playing the Phillies on the last weekend in September while Tampa was playing the Astros? I’m sure the Red Sox would not have been happy and you can be sure that when big market owners feel their championship hopes (and bottom line) being affected by teams in another league playing by different rules, you will hear some loud and long screaming.
On the other side it’s easy to see NL owners getting upset relatively quickly. The NL always suffers in interleague situations (AL leads the series 1104-910) because the man who acts as DH for the NL team is more than likely a lighter hitting utility player instead of the AL standard power hitting DH. Eventually all owners and many in the media will press for the same rules across both leagues. I’m sure the commissioner wants that to happen, it makes things easier when owners ask you to do what you’d already like to do. Standardizing the rules for the DH wouldn’t be hard to do really if everyone takes a reasonable stance; it would vanish almost instantly.
AL owners really don’t enjoy carrying a $12 million a year pinch hitter. While it keeps their starters in the game longer in theory the very presence of a DH creates extra strain on the pitching staff. What’s gained at the plate might actually be lost on the mound. More and more players today reject being a full time DH out of hand as well so what’s the problem? The MLBPA rejects dropping the DH because it removes a high dollar player spot from the roster and forces those who can no longer do it with the glove to retire. One common sense answer would be to add an additional roster spot creating a 26 man roster. That would provide 60 additional players for the MLBPA and possibly salve their concerns. It would also let ownership decide which players fills those spots at what salary. It won’t be that easy of course nothing is. Whether they decide to keep or jettison the DH the problem of balance and fairness in the schedule – particularly down the stretch – must be addressed.
The Big Change
The final step in this theoretical strategic plan is a reconfiguration of the leagues similar to one Buck Showalter explained on ESPN a few years ago creating essentially three 10 team leagues/conferences/divisions or whatever you choose to call them. It looked something like this:
|Eastern Division||Central Division||Western Division|
This setup mitigates to a great extent the union’s travel issues. It also preserves the ‘natural rivalries ‘ we keep hearing about as being important to the fans. Of course it leaves us with only six playoff teams and we have 10 now. What to do? We can’t stop having 10 playoff teams after everyone agrees it makes more money creates more drama and keeps fans interested longer. Wait I have an idea, why not do this?
Everybody gets to be champion of something
|Easter Division||Central Division||Western Division|
|North Conference||North Conference||North Conference|
|South Conference||South Conference||South Conference|
There, that’s better! (Wow, I really need a sarcasm font)
Now we have six conferences who will produce a Conference Champion each. We either take the next best two team from the all North conferences and the next best two from the all South conferences to make up our 10 playoff teams. Alternatively take the top two in each conference and expand the playoffs again to 12 teams.
The schedule under this configuration would actually grow by two games to 164 a year. Each team would play 11 games in conference (44), eight games against your intradivision rivals (40) and four games with everyone else (80) create a 164 game season. We have most of a team’s games played inside that team’s conference first, the second most within their division (closest rivals in theory) and the least against teams outside of the division. The schedule is as fair as possible yet weighted so teams play more games against your immediate challengers than anyone else. Now everyone’s happy?
Hmmm, that setup reminds me of something. Oh yes, now I remember.
|North Division||North Division|
|East Division||East Division|
|South Division||South Division|
|West Division||West Division|
And that my friends, is how one might transform the MLB into something resembling the NFL Mark II, one small change at a time. Of course I’m probably way out of line. These guys wouldn’t create a long term plan to make more money and implement it without consulting/considering the fans. Would they. . . ?