In baseball, more than any other sport, numbers matter.
Here: 56, .400, 3,000. If you're a serious student of the game, you know what those mean, instinctively, without context or clarification.
Now, with MLB's collective bargaining agreement set to expire after the 2016 season, another number is getting attention: 162.
For more than 50 years, that's how many games have been crammed into the regular-season schedule. It's a grind, a marathon, a spring-to-autumn endurance test.
And it could change soon.
Commissioner Rob Manfred broached the subject back in May, and while he didn't make a clear endorsement for or against the 162-game schedule, he sounded open to alterations.
"One hundred and sixty-two games in 183 days, and a lot of those 21 days consumed by travel, is a pretty demanding schedule," Manfred said at the time, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). "By reputation I work pretty hard, and I don't think I work 162 days out of 183. It's a tough schedule."
Tough, yes, but also tradition. The American League adopted the 162-game slate in 1961, and the National League did so the following year. Prior to that—for most of the 20th century—teams played a 154-game schedule.
Back then, there were only eight teams in each league. Expansion in the early '60s changed the math and led to the extended schedule. Things have gotten more complicated over the years with subsequent expansions and the advent of interleague play. But the 162-game benchmark has endured.
According to Manfred, however, there is increased chatter about returning to the pre-1961 figure.
"Players have asked about 154," he said, per MLB.com's Richard Justice. "I think 154 is a topic that is complicated. It has big competitive and economic ramifications. Having said that, I think in the 20-something years I've worked in the game, there's more conversation about it than there has been in a long time."
Those "economic ramifications" Manfred referred to touch everything from lucrative TV deals to a simple butts-in-seats equation. Fewer games, almost certainly, equals less revenue for teams. So it's easy to imagine owners coming to the bargaining table with a strong pro-162 stance. (Heck, there might be a couple who'd prefer to expand the schedule.)
As any player or even casual fan will attest, the MLB season is long. Not intolerably long if you truly love the sport. But long enough for bodies to break down, legs to tire and shoulders to bark. Every year, even the luckiest, healthiest squads enter the postseason with a few banged-up guys.
Would eliminating eight games fix that entirely? Of course not. Injuries can strike at any time. But giving everyone a few more off days would undoubtedly help.
Plus, a 154-game regular season could allow the playoffs to start earlier, lowering the chances of rainouts and weather oddities that arise when the World Series is shoved into November.
OK, two questions: Is this likely to happen? And would it be good for the game, on balance?
To the first, probably not. But maybe. If that sounds noncommittal, that's because the collective bargaining process is fraught and complicated, like any high-level negotiation. Many factors and competing interests are in play.
We know at least some players like the idea of a 154-game season, and we can rightly assume that no owners do. Is this such a pressing priority that the players' union would draw a line in the sand? And would the owners budge?
Baseball has enjoyed two decades of labor stability since the disastrous strike of 1994. Everyone involved wants that tranquility to continue, so it's hard to fathom this morphing into a nuclear issue.
More likely, the players' union could back off on the shortened schedule to get some other concession from the owners. That's how bargaining generally works.
MLB, though, has demonstrated its ability to adapt in recent years. The use of replay and the addition of the second wild card are two recent, prominent examples. And other seismic shifts, including bringing the designated hitter to the NL, could be in the offing.
So it's not as if a return to the 154-game schedule, or some other truncated permutation, is an impossible dream. Stranger things have happened.
Should the MLB regular season be shortened?
Now, to the second question—would it be good for the game? We already outlined the main arguments in favor: less fatigue and fewer injuries among players and the possibility of containing the playoffs to October.
On the other hand, as we stipulated up top, baseball is a game of numbers. And changing the length of the schedule can mess with the validity of statistical milestones.
Recall the controversy that ensued when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, but did so in a 162-game rather than 154-game schedule. A return to 154 would further muddy the waters and make comparisons between eras even more difficult.
On the other, other hand, the steroid era already splattered mud all over the record books. No one is going to break Barry Bonds' tainted 73-home run mark, for example, not unless PEDs make a roaring comeback. So who cares?
That's a pretty compelling point. In a way, MLB could symbolically distance itself from the statistical ridiculousness of the late '90s and early 2000s by shortening the schedule and marking the start of a new era.
Then again, CBS Sports' Mike Axisa might have offered the best summation of the anti-154 stance: "As a baseball fan, I am against anything that would mean less baseball..."
In January, with a soggy month-plus remaining before pitchers and catchers report, it's tough to argue with that.