As the end of April looms, so do the deadlines for all of my final projects this semester. So while I continue writing and researching, none of what I am working on quite fits into a sports blog. (Sports fans haven’t shown a particular interest in Chinese social structure or the lifestyle of merchants in the Anhui Province at the end of the Qing Dynasty, so I’ll keep that research paper off the site.) Rest assured that this article drought will not last. Please bear with me. The school year will be over soon.
On the plus side, I have decided to take a break from the monotony of my projects in order to bring you the exciting conclusion of “A Modest Baseball Proposal.” Savor it, because it may be another two weeks before we can get together like this again.
In my last column, we explored the possibility of a global professional baseball tournament to be held annually in America. This tournament would be based on the UEFA Cup, and would be a monumental step in the globalization of baseball. This is step one in my quest to keep baseball from falling further behind football, NASCAR, and celebrity poker.
Step two is raising the stakes in MLB. As it stands, the worst things that could happen to your team are: 1) missing the playoffs/heartbreaking postseason elimination, 2) career threatening injury to a young star, 3) a lifelong losing tradition, 4) your team packing up and getting the hell out of dodge, Brooklyn-style.
These are all bad, but none guarantee humiliation for the fan base and the organization. This season, Newcastle United was on such a bad streak from Week 17 to Week 30, playing four games to a draw while losing the rest over the 13-week period, that the team was in real danger of finishing amongst the bottom three clubs in the league, and therefore being demoted to the Champions League.
The Champions League, despite its name, is not a place that Premiership teams want to be. It may well be the purgatory of soccer. Even if your team wins the championship at that level, all that really matters is that they will be promoted to the Premier League.
What better punishment would befit Major League organizations who annually field a team that cannot compete, then just sit back and enjoy all the revenue sharing that comes from the collective bargaining agreement? Do you think the Twins would have let Johan Santana and Torii Hunter go if they knew that they ran the risk of falling to an inferior league at the end of the season? Would Kansas City and Tampa Bay have taken so long to get their acts together? Would San Francisco have bet the farm on Barry Zito?
Teams today have the luxury of revenue sharing and rebuilding years. There is no punishment for terrible play and management. If we want teams to start playing better, then it is time to start a new era in baseball. I call it, the “High Stakes Era”.
Wouldn’t Pittsburgh fans like to see a meaningful game played in September without the Pirates trying to play “spoiler” to some other team’s playoff chances. The whole month of September would be very meaningful if the Bucs started the month two games below the last team to avoid relegation.
Newcastle is among the most storied football clubs in England. If they fall to relegation, their rivals would show them no mercy for it. Imagine if Detroit or St. Louis were to flop this season and be relegated. (Detroit is just happy this system isn’t in place after the season’s dreadful start.) Cubs and Indians fans wouldn’t just laugh and say “Your team sucks.” They would say, “Your team sucks and they don’t belong in our league. Come talk to us again when you’ve proven yourself.”
How definitive and final of an argument is that? There is no comeback. After a loss like that, all you can do is bandage yourself up, train harder, win at the lower level, and come back seeking revenge. Wait! That sounds like the plot to any sports movie!
Teams and fans of teams that move up or down from any league would have a huge chip on their shoulder. On the 20th of this month, when Sunderland, (who played their way into and out of the Champions League over the last two seasons), comes to play archrival Newcastle, it will be that much more meaningful, because Sunderland has had to endure an entire season of their rival neighbor’s taunts about their relegation without any form of comeback.
If they can win on the pitch, then all of a sudden, the Mackems have the upper hand again. With so little success this season, Newcastle would be desperate to keep at least these bragging rights. With so much at stake, one can only expect this match to be a slugfest. Personally, I can’t wait.
So, now the question is, “How does one go about reorganizing baseball to have a hierarchy of leagues?” I’m glad you asked.
In England, there are four professional leagues: Premier League, Champions League, League 1, and League 2. If you add up all the clubs representing those leagues, you get 92 teams. In America, there are currently 62 professional independent teams playing in various leagues across the country and in Canada. If you add those teams with the 30 MLB clubs, you get 92 teams. (I’ll give you a minute so you can start to piece this together yourself and imagine how awesome this could be.)
As we all know from the downfall of hockey, expansion isn’t always best for making the league more competitive or marketable, but this is the combination of expansion and compression. The Premier League, (America will give our version some forced national pride name like “Patriot League” or the “Freedom League”, even though it would be much better to name the leagues after four of the five original inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame: Ruth League, Wagner League, Mathewson League, and Johnson League. Cobb had the personality of a feral dog, so I’m leaving him out, even though it may be better to name the lowest league after him), only has 20 teams competing in it, thus eliminating the 10 teams in baseball that have the worst records and have fallen to the level of speed bump on the road to the playoffs for major teams.
The Ruth League teams only play each other, raising the level of competition. (I understand the DH is going to be an issue on this one, so we will assume that teams that formally played in the AL will either keep it for their home parks as they do now, or the rule is dropped all together and the game is played the way it was always supposed to.)
The 10 MLB teams that are dropped will join the champions of each of the current Independent leagues, as well as the runners up from each league except the Continental Baseball League and United League Baseball. (They only have four and six teams in their leagues. I know the Northern League only has six as well, but they have been around longer, and have seniority.) The last two leagues will be filled up accordingly, based on the talent of the league the team was in and its standing at the end of the season.
The top four teams in each league will make the playoffs, with the one seed playing the four seed and the two seed playing the three seed in a best of seven series to make it to the finals.
Of the four playoff teams, the one seed and the two seed are guaranteed promotion, based on their performance during the regular season. Whichever team makes it furthest in the playoffs between the three and four seed will also be promoted. If both lose in the first round, then the three seed moves on by virtue of the regular season record tiebreaker. This way, the playoffs for lower level leagues will still have a captivating storyline to go along with the excitement that already comes from playoff baseball.
So, let’s take a look at how the first two leagues would be filled if this reorganization had started at the beginning of this season. (I’d put in the bottom two leagues as well, but I don’t know enough about the quality of each Independent League to compare teams in different leagues and categorize them in this new system. Somebody out there does, and if this reorganization ever actually takes place, that person will surely be hired.)
(Please note, these teams are not listed in any order, they just had the top 20 records in the MLB last season. I also considered dropping the bottom 5 from each league, but I decided it would be better for controversy, buzz, and NL fans to cry foul because more of their teams are being dropped.)
New York Mets
St. Louis Cardinals
San Diego Padres
Los Angeles Dodgers
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Toronto Blue Jays
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Tampa Bay Rays
Kansas City Royals
Chicago White Sox
San Francisco Giants
Ft. Worth Cats
St. Paul Saints
Atlantic City Surf (Replacing the North Shore Spirit, which disbanded)
Tarrant County Blue Thunder
Windy City Thunderbolts
Washington Wild Things
Long Beach Armada
Gary SouthShore RailCats
Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks (Replacing Calgary Vipers, who switched leagues)
If this is how we were entering the season, how nervous would Oakland and Texas fans be? How excited would people be in Newark and Nashua, just knowing that they had a chance to Cinderella themselves to the top, and perhaps gain their own identity instead of associating themselves with Boston and New York.
A team from Fargo is one brilliant season away from the Ruth League? North Dakota wouldn’t know what to do with itself in the celebration. It will probably take years for Independent teams to really make a splash against clubs that have luxuries like a farm system and boatloads of cash, but those things do not guarantee success. If nothing else, this will keep teams like Florida from phoning it in, and teams like Minnesota, who have one of the richest owners, if not the richest owner in baseball, to start using his money to keep the team competitive and relevant.
It will cause Baseball Tonight to turn itself into a four hour morning show, giving guys like me something to watch other than “Today” or “Good Morning America”, or the same repeated “SportsCenter” over and over. It will make the average game in the highest league that much better, and since it is only the best teams playing with only four playoff spots for 20 clubs, teams couldn’t take a series off.
The major benefactors are the fans. They get better competition, higher stakes, more to talk about, more meaningful games, taunting goes up a level in the case of a rival being relegated, new rivalries are formed, (Gary, Indiana finally gets a shot at Chicago), and places like Fargo and Chico don’t have to travel for hundreds of miles just to see top-level baseball in person.
Between the new organization of Major League Baseball and the UEFA-style tournament, baseball will reclaim its dominance here in America, and perhaps challenge soccer, rugby, cricket, and field hockey to become one of the most popular sports in the world. If nothing else, at least it will never be shut out of an Olympics, as it is planned to be for 2012. Baseball needs to reinforce itself in America and globalize further if it ever wants to be one of the world’s sports. I just hope we can make it past field hockey.