How Baseball Can Save America, and Itself

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The Major League Baseball season should have started this past Thursday.  But baseball, as well as all other major sports and the rest of the world, has been shut down in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.  What was unthinkable just a few weeks ago is now a sobering reality, the possibility of a summer without baseball.

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Of course, baseball and the other major sports and entertainment is far from the most important thing in light of recent events.  We should all be focusing on keeping our loved ones and ourselves as safe as possible.  As much as we might need sports right now to escape from the grim news we are getting on an almost hourly basis, sports will have to wait for the time being.

However, when this pandemic ends and life returns to some sense of normalcy, we will need sports more than ever.  Sports bring people together, and in the past has helped to heal the country in times of crisis.

After the 9/11 attacks, baseball was the first sport to return to play and signaled to the country it was time to move forward.  During World War II, President Roosevelt mandated baseball continue to play to help buoy the country’s spirits.  Baseball used to mean that much to America, and it will again.  And make no mistake, baseball will be a key part of the country’s healing.

When baseball begins play it will be symbolic of the country’s recovery.  Baseball will get the country’s attention in a way it hasn’t since 9/11.  So while baseball’s return will be important for America’s recovery, that attention will also be important for baseball’s recovery.  For a sport that has been slowly declining in terms of national importance with younger fans, baseball is presented with a unique opportunity to get those fans back.  It cannot afford to play it safe.

Right now we just don’t know when, or if, baseball will begin its season.  I want to be optimistic and think we will see baseball sometime this summer.  What better time to target a return than America’s Birthday; the Fourth of July?  Were that to happen, baseball will have lost about half of its regular season.  With an asterisk ready to be stamped on the 2020 season, why not make some radical changes on an experimental basis to try to lure back fans?

Here are some changes for baseball to consider when it does return - some radical, others simple, to make it more interesting in the hopes of recapturing, and keeping, America’s interest.

Pace of Play

In order to gain and maintain fan interest, baseball needs to address some of its fundamental problems and take the opportunity to make change.  The main issue with baseball is the pace of play.  Simply put, baseball can be boring at times.

The first step to speed up play is the institution of a pitch clock.  Baseball has already started the process in the minor leagues, and it is time for it to come up to the majors.

Another measure to improve pace of play is a scale back of instant replay.  Replay was intended for the review of close calls and fair/foul calls.  It wasn’t intended to analyze whether a player may have come off the bag for a split second while the tag was still on.  Many replays take longer as reviewers watch multiple slow motion replays from various angles to determine if a tag was made or a base touched.  In order to speed up the game, a maximum two-minute review window should be instituted.  If a call cannot be definitively made within that window, the call on the field stands, and the game continues.

Market the Future Stars

Photo courtesy of lavidabaseball.com
For some reason baseball has a difficult time marketing its stars.  Right now there is an exciting influx of younger players in the league, such as Rafael Devers, Gleyber Torres, Ronald Acuna Jr., and Juan Soto.  Baseball needs to market its young players to attract the younger viewers it is losing to other sports, such as the NBA, who do a great job pumping their young talent (see Zion Williamson and Ja Morant).

Baseball could also do a better job on some of its current superstars, many of whom are still under 30.  Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, Francisco Lindor – there’s a lot of great young talent out there.

Show the Inner Workings

In the past few seasons baseball has put microphones on its players during spring training games and the All-Star Game..  This has provided a great look into the inner workings of the game and at the personality of the players.  This practice needs to be extended into the regular season.  While players will not want to interact with broadcasters, just listening to their interactions in real time would make the game infinitely more interesting.  Who wouldn’t love to hear what a manager discusses with a pitcher on a mound visit?

The ideas expressed above are relatively simple and should already be on baseball’s radar.  Below are a few more “out of the box” ideas that may not be achievable, but are fun to consider nonetheless. 

Eliminate Interleague Play

Certainly interleague play has lost its luster since it began in 1997.  Yankees-Mets, Dodgers-Angels and Cubs-White Sox may still spark interest in their regions, but for every one of those series there is a Mariners-Marlins, Twins-Rockies, or Indians-Diamondbacks match-up that no one cares about.  Unfortunately, eliminating interleague play is not possible as the leagues are currently constituted because there are 15 teams in each league.  Without interleague play there will always be a team idle for an entire series. 

So if eliminating interleague play isn’t an option, let’s take it even further.  Eliminate league play altogether and adopt an East-West Divisional format.  To maintain an even number of teams in each division, 16 teams will be placed in the East Division, and 14 teams in the West.

A proposed divisional alignment:

East Division
West Division
Atlanta
Arizona
Baltimore
Colorado
Boston
Houston
Chicago Cubs
Kansas City
Chicago White Sox
LA Angels
Cincinnati
LA Dodgers
Cleveland
Milwaukee
Detroit
Minnesota
Miami
Oakland
NY Mets
San Diego
NY Yankees
San Francisco
Philadelphia
Seattle
Pittsburgh
St Louis
Tampa Bay
Texas
Toronto
Washington


Each team will play a 104 game schedule, with a home and home series against each team in the division and no games against the other division.  This format will maintain regional rivalries and reduce travel time and expenses for all teams.    Each team will play 104 games.  Teams in the east will play each other a total of either six or eight times, with eight coming against rivals from the previous divisional alignment and other teams within a close geographic proximity.  Teams in the west will play each other eight times. 

Doubleheaders

Shop for Boston Red Sox fan gear from Nike, Majestic and New Era at Shop.MLB.comIn order to get 104 games, the regular season will have to be extended until mid-October, or approximately to Columbus Day Weekend, which accounts for 100 days after July 4th.  In order to get in 104 games in that span, and allow for the occasional off day for the teams, it will be necessary to play some doubleheaders.  Every Saturday in August through mid-September would be doubleheader days.

Expansion of Rosters

Baseball had already planned through collective bargaining with the players to expand to a 26-player roster in 2020, with a maximum of 13 pitchers on the roster.  With a condensed schedule requiring minimal days off and frequent doubleheaders, pitching will be at a premium.  Rosters will need to expand even further to handle the load. 

Baseball should expand the rosters to 30, but only have 25 players active for each series.  This will allow for a cache of fresh arms to be available every fourth or fifth days.

Playoff Format

The new divisional alignment will require a new playoff format.  The playoff field will be expanded to 12 teams, six in each division.  The top teams in each division will draw byes, with the remaining four to be play in a five-game double-elimination round robin tournament.  All games will be played over three days in two neutral sites – one in the east, one in the west.  Potential sites for the tournament include New Orleans, Orlando, Charlotte, San Antonio and Las Vegas. 

The two top teams in the tournament then advance to play the best of five series with the teams that receive byes in a divisional semi-final.  The winners advance to a best of seven divisional championship series, and the division champions then play in the World Series.

All-Star Game

Given the expected shortness of the season it’s not likely baseball will be able to squeeze in an All-Star Break while it is trying to make up games (and lost revenue).  The All-Star Game may not be doable, but the Home Run Derby has become the better and more exciting contest in recent years, and would help to showcase the game’s younger players.  The Derby could be held at the same time as the round robin tournaments in one of the neutral sites, with each team not participating in the postseason sending one participant. 

Players have balked at participating in the Derby in the past with the claim it messes up their swings for the rest of the season.  With limiting the participants to players whose season is done, this is not an issue.  In addition, to further sweeten the pot, player prize money and all proceeds could be dedicated to relief efforts for the local communities impacted by the coronavirus crisis.

In recent weeks we have learned that change can come quickly to our lives and that we must learn to adapt in order to survive.  Baseball needs to realize that it too can discard the “because we’ve always done it that way” mentality and adapt to the changing times.  Now is the time.  Here’s hoping we see baseball and all other aspects of life return to normal as soon as possible.

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Boston Sports Syndicate: How Baseball Can Save America, and Itself
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