Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fixing Major League Baseball

Major League Baseball is currently considering proposals for changing the MLB schedule to make the game more appealing. You haven't seen much about sports here at Kline Online, but I thought that as a baseball fan, MLB's reworking of the schedule presented the perfect opportunity for a blogger to offer up some ideas for making Major League Baseball more enjoyable, more competitive, and return the sport to its rightful position as the national pastime.

1. Stop giving home field advantage in the World Series to the team whose league wins the All Star Game. In an attempt to make the All Star Game 'relevant,'  MLB has implemented one of the dumbest rules imaginable. The vast majority of the players in the All Star Game won't make the World Series, and have no stake in home field advantage for the Fall Classic. What's more, in one three hour game, Major League Baseball has marginalized an entire seasons worth of work. For instance, in 2004, the St. Louis Cardinals (with an astonishing 105-57 record during the regular season) started the World Series on the road in Fenway Park, giving home field advantage to a Boston Red Sox team with a 98-64 record. St. Louis lost the series. In 2012, the Cardinals backed into the playoffs with a 90-72 record, but boasted home field advantage against the 96-66 Texas Rangers. The Cardinals won that series. In one fell-swoop, a 7 game advantage in 2004 and a 6 game advantage in 2012 were negated by a single game played in early July.

2. Eliminate interleague play. The rivalries are fabricated out of whole cloth for marketing purposes. The Cardinals natural (and long-standing) rival is the Cubs, not the Royals, and no amount of geographic proximity can supplant the fact that the Cubs and Cardinals have been playing one another for the better part of a century. Same in Baltimore, where the so-called 'Beltway series' between the Orioles and the Nationals is just a gimmick between a team that hasn't been above .500 since 1997, and the Nationals, who were still called the Expos, and still played in Montreal in 1997. There is also something fundamentally satisfying about keeping the two Leagues separate and identifiable from one another until the World Series.

3. Since interleague play won't be eliminated, eliminate the Designated Hitter. The DH is one of the goofiest rules in baseball, applying as it does to only the American League. It is an attempt to increase offensive production, a mindset that has also led to other beneficial developments, like steroids. The DH helps managers cram as many meat-headed homerun hitters into a lineup as possible, many of which wouldn't know how to put a baseball glove on if their lives depended on it, let alone use it. In other words, the DH rule serves to dumb down the game, and takes emphasis away from the chess-match strategy that, in my opinion, makes National League baseball so much more satisfying for the serious fan. If the powers that be are going to pretend that the Leagues are interchangeable, then its time to get rid of the Designated Hitter.  

4. Re-train umpires on the width and height of the strike zone.  Whatever happened to the letter-high strike? It apparently got buried with Jimmy Hoffa in Giants Stadium. A called letter-high strike is now apt to get angry glares and words of derision from players aimed at umps. And now that hitters crowd the plate, the inside strike that catches the corner is called a ball as well; I can't tell you how many times I have shouted at the television that just because a hitter crowds the plate (adorned with Roman warrior-style protective armor) doesn't mean the width of the strike zone changes. By re-establishing the strike zone, you will force hitters to swing the bat, move the game along quicker, and likely save a starting pitcher a couple hundred pitches over the course of a season (the equivalent of a start or two).

5. Establish a real salary cap. This one is by far the most important. Communities invest a ton in their baseball teams; building stadiums, roads, and public transit to accommodate teams that in turn will serve to support local and regional economies. So that while teams certainly have owners, the communities that spend significant sums on these teams' well-being have a significant (and legitimate) stake in their team being competitive. Unfortunately, many teams spend years, decades even, as sub-.500 cellar dwellers. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians, Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners, have been down on their luck for so long that high expectations can be interpreted as a .500 season; the playoffs, or a World Series, seem like so much fantasy. There is also a subset of teams just above this one, like the Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, Toronto Blue Jays, and a bunch of others who perhaps find fleeting success for a season or two, but then settle down into a much more comfortable performance of middling character.

The gap in Major League team salaries is astounding. The highest team salary for the 2012 season belongs to the New York Yankees at $195 million. The lowest salary goes to the Oakland Athletics at $49 million. The difference between the highest and the lowest salary is more than the team salaries of 26 MLB clubs. The disparity is ridiculous. Some teams, like the Yankees, choose to invest big dollars in their teams, and they have the means to do so. Other teams, like Oakland or Pittsburgh, likely have the means to spend more, but choose not to, for a variety of reasons, some legitimate, some questionable. 

One of the reasons why professional football has surpassed professional baseball in the American popular psyche is because teams can reverse their fortunes so quickly. Teams like the Detroit Lions can go from 0-16 to the playoffs in the matter of just a few seasons, and completely revamp the lineup in the process. Parity is the word of the day, and for the most part, every game is competitive, and every team has at least a glimmer of hope when the season begins. This is manifestly not true of baseball. There are very few 'surprise' World Series winners, the Orioles for instance are currently astounding fans and prognosticators, but Baltimore fans are waiting with baited breath for the other shoe to drop; somehow it just can't be real.

Major League Baseball should, beginning in 2015, establish a $100 million salary cap, and a $75 million salary minimum. If you don't spend $75 million on your team, penalties apply. Likewise, contracts that violate your team's salary cap would not be approved by MLB. Existing long-term contracts, (like that given to Albert Pujols this off-season) would have to be grandfathered in, but there is a way to make it work without voiding existing contracts. 

A salary cap would restore sanity to Major League contracts (which is why it will likely be opposed by the MLB Player's Association), and improve the overall health of the game and the financial health of the teams. Renewed competitiveness would also help the cities that support Major League teams, and while I wouldn't necessarily argue for federal legislation to force a salary cap on Major League Baseball, the league does enjoy antitrust protection from Congress, so there is precedent for federal involvement in the way professional baseball operates.

6. Cut twenty games from the MLB schedule. If a salary cap becomes reality, individual player salaries will abort their skyward trend; many players will not see their salaries change at all, but big-time stars likely will, as teams can no longer afford to spend wantonly on a single player. So if we are asking players to make less, we should ask less of them, in terms of the length of the MLB schedule. To go from 162 games to 142 games (cutting ten home games, and ten away games) makes every other game more important. A shorter schedule would also help reduce injuries.

But again, taking another cue from the NFL, fewer games creates more drama around the games that do get played. At the end of a football season, serious fans feel like they have lost an important part of their lives, both college and professional football serve a critical social element. At the end of a baseball season, the fans that are still paying attention feel relived that they survived. The baseball schedule hasn't always been this long ("Spring" Training in February and a World Series that can stretch into November) and the sheer length of the season can tax the average fan's attention span. A shorter season will also permit last place teams to put a headstone on a brutal season without laboring through the month of September in an empty stadium. Put simply, the 162 game schedule serves to prove that more isn't always better.

So there it is; a few ideas from a more-than-just casual fan for improving Major League Baseball. It is a great league, full of great players, teams and fans. But good as it is, it could be better. Look forward to your thoughts in the comment section.  

No comments: