10 Creative Ideas to Improve Major League Baseball

Geoff Ratliff@@geoffratliffContributor IIIJuly 2, 2012

10 Creative Ideas to Improve Major League Baseball

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    Major League Baseball needs help! It may seem like the game is in good standing with attendance figures at healthy levels league-wide and unprecedented labor peace, but with obviously blown calls continuing to be a problem and the cloud of performance enhancing drug use still looming, it’s clear that the game still has a way to go.

    With last week's NBA draft behind us, this is the beginning of a roughly two-month stretch of the year that MLB typically has to itself (this year’s summer Olympics in London notwithstanding).   

    Last year’s NFL and NBA lockouts provided a perfect opportunity for baseball to start reclaiming its place as America’s favorite pastime, but so far, it has failed to take advantage.

    The very thing that makes the game great (tradition) is also the thing that’s held it back for so long. Football has experienced a tremendous amount of growth and innovation in the decades since it was invented, benefiting it in two major ways: popularity and mysticism.

    Football continues to rise in popularity—particularly at the professional level—even as the game becomes unrecognizable to devotees of generations past. This has happened precisely because it is incredibly in tune with the taste of modern day fans.

    Going back to the leadership of the legendary Pete Rozelle, the NFL has continued to capitalize on its entertainment value, leading to a meteoric rise in both popularity and revenue generation. While there is a large contingent of fans that feel that the commercialization of sports has stripped them of their purity, I’d argue that the games are only responding to the demands of the majority, and no league has done that better than the NFL.

    What makes this great—besides large attendance figures and phenomenal television viewership—is the fact that it encourages lively debate about the game’s great players without providing any substantive way of resolving the conflict. Football is so incredibly different than it was even 20 years ago that these arguments become more of a sense of generational pride, making the answer to the question of “who’s the greatest X of all-time” irrelevant.

    Major League Baseball is decidedly different. The game—as it is actually played on the field—is so remarkably similar to the way it was 150 years ago, that even a 35-year old fan like myself has no trouble understanding that Babe Ruth is perhaps the greatest player to ever put on a uniform.

    You could make a strong argument that the relative consistency in the way that the game is played is part of what makes baseball great; precisely because generational comparisons between players’ performances are so easy to make.

    I’m not suggesting that lively debate about baseball history doesn’t exist—the evolution of specialized roles in pitching staffs does create a great source of debate for at least one position on the field—but at the end of the day, baseball is such a numbers-driven game that determining a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy or legendary stature ultimately becomes lost in the statistics. The argument becomes less reliant on mystique, leading to a somewhat less sexy discussion.

    The history of Major League Baseball is unquestionably greater than that of any of the other three major North American professional sports leagues. This is both a gift and a curse.

    It’s beautiful in that it provides rich context and color by which the game’s past can be viewed. However, the powers that be seem to be so keenly aware of this that they hold onto the past with a death grip, unable to embrace some fairly elementary ideas that would perhaps elevate baseball back to its rightful place atop the American sports pantheon.

    The game has shifted from being the thing to sort of a niche sport. Baseball has stagnated to the point where you’re either a passionate fan or you could care less about it, causing it to miss out on a huge segment of the market: the casual fan.

    With MLB commissioner Bud Selig’s tenure now extended through the 2014 season, I’d like to provide 10 suggestions for how he can improve the game before leaving, thus improving his individual legacy and leaving the game in a much better place than it was when he took over.

Treat the Game More Like a Business

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    In short, do away with the country-club mentality surrounding league owners and start embracing younger, newer money that actually cares about running a competitive franchise.

    This complaint is not a new one, and many people have cited MLB’s repeated rebuffing of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as a prime example of how preserving the good ol’ boys network has trumped getting the best owners in place.

    A different and more recent example of how personal agendas have negatively influenced business decisions can be found in the handling of the Los Angeles Dodgers and their messy ownership situation.

    Bud Selig’s attempt to wrest control of the Dodgers away from Frank McCourt turned into a very public and extremely ugly affair. As a diehard Dodgers fan, I was elated to see McCourt’s reign of terror come to an end, but I thought Selig went about it the wrong way.

    I don’t want to put all of the blame on the commissioner, as it is quite clear that McCourt was not a completely reasonable man. But I can’t help but think that had this process been handled in a manner that didn’t so evidently reveal Selig’s personal disdain for the man and the way that he so blatantly abused the privilege of owning one of the game’s most iconic franchises, that an amicable resolution would have come together a lot sooner.

    As it turned out, McCourt was unable to dilute the Dodgers brand, as evidenced by the record $2.1 billion winning bid submitted by the new ownership group. Should this situation happen again to a franchise with less cache, Selig and the other MLB owners may not be so lucky.

Add the DH to the National League

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    The fact that the American and National Leagues still don’t play by the same rules is perhaps the biggest example of how disillusioned MLB is about the current state of the business of sports and entertainment.

    Whenever you hear people talking about the designated hitter, you mostly hear them complaining that the American League should do away with this experiment. But why?

    Why would you do away with a rule that:

    1. Spares viewers the agony of watching more awful at-bats by pitchers? No one would want to see Peyton Manning returning punts, so let those guys focus on doing what they do best.

    2. Gives us the daily joy of watching Big Papi, aka David Ortiz—one of the most personable, gregarious and marketable players in the game—and Jim Thome.

    Baseball rightfully and universally raised a glass to Thome after he reached the 600 home run milestone last season. And doing away with a rule that would have ensured that he didn't reach that mark benefits baseball how exactly?

    It is absolutely ridiculous that the two leagues have different rules, so let’s prescribe some innovative Viagra for the senior circuit and add the DH.

Revisit Realignment

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    I have to give Major League Baseball credit for this one. I’ve been thinking about this idea for a couple of years now, and this past offseason, MLB finally decided to get with the program.

    The unbalanced schedule had become a serious problem because of its effect on pennant races. Teams from the same division—due mostly to the impact of inter-league play—face very different paths in their attempt to make the playoffs.

    MLB rightfully went about correcting this problem by first announcing that the Houston Astros would be moving to the AL West starting with the 2013 season, creating two 15-team leagues. They also made the equally smart decision to have at least one inter-league series going on at all times starting next year.

    If you combine these two changes with the addition of the designated hitter in the NL, you’d have consistent baseball being played throughout the season and greater exposure to natural, geographic rivalries across both leagues, all while making a schedule that is more fair to each team in each division.

Shorten the Regular Season, Expand the Playoffs and Tighten the Playoff Schedule

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    MLB at least seems to recognize that the scheduling of postseason games is a problem, although there are no imminent plans to correct the problem. I know there have been a few options thrown out there for how to do this, but here’s my plan:

    1. Shorten the regular season by 12 games. All of you who are worried about how this might affect single-season records and the pursuit of historic milestones, just stop it. News flash: The season hasn’t always been 162 games and baseball should not be played in November, period!

    2. Expand the playoffs to six teams in each league. Have three division winners and three wild card teams, with the top two records in each league getting first-round byes and the first-round matchups being best-of-three series. Shortening the regular season by two weeks would allow us to have the extra round and still finish the season in October.

    3. Stop with the late start times. Kids need to be able to watch playoff games. I’m no TV expert, but there has to be a way to do this without destroying ad revenue.

    4. Fewer off days between playoff games: This problem is not unique to MLB, but unlike hockey and basketball, there are legitimate concerns around weather that give it an extra incentive to do something about it. There’s really no need to deviate greatly from the schedule that players are used to during the rest of the season.

Aggressively Market Individual Stars

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    This is another area in which I have to give MLB somewhat of a break. An increasing number of stars are of Hispanic or Latin-American descent and have no interest in learning English to the point that it would make them more marketable to the general American public.

    Since Hispanics are now the largest minority in the United States, it seems that there is an opportunity to meet them halfway and at least more aggressively market those stars in the communities that naturally relate to them. This plays directly into the emerging strategy of creating developmental academies in more Latin-American countries.

    That said, MLB has plenty of superb young talents with universal appeal that they should aggressively prop up as the future of the sport. From rookie phenoms Bryce Harper and Mike Trout and slightly more seasoned young stars on the rise like Stephen Strasburg, Matt Cain, Giancarlo Stanton and Madison Bumgarner, baseball has enough fresh talent to totally wash away the stench of the steroids era.

    There’s even a group of more accomplished players like Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Joey Votto, Robinson Cano, Prince Fielder and Tim Lincecum who are all under 30. MLB needs to go out of its way to make sure that these players become household names, even amongst the most casual of sports fans.

Institute Flexible Ticket Pricing

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    Inter-league series against long-time, interstate rivals like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are huge for MLB and are usually held over the weekend, so the home team could justifiably charge a bit more than normal for those tickets. But when Baltimore comes to town Monday through Wednesday, the seats aren’t full at all, so those tickets should be less expensive.

    This would certainly help boost attendance figures at major league stadiums, especially during a time where there is growing competition for the fans’ entertainment dollars. Team owners would also reap the financial benefits of greater revenue since more fans equals more revenue from concessions and team apparel.

Expand the Use of Instant Replay

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    I’m not going to advocate on behalf of cameras dictating the strike zone because the human element needs to remain an essential part of the game. But when the impact of not using replay causes a pitcher to lose out on a perfect game (Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga in 2010) and gives another a no-hitter that wasn’t (Johan Santana of the New York Mets earlier this year), Major League Baseball ends up with a major credibility problem.

    Technology gives us an opportunity to quickly and accurately get these things right, and as entertaining as they often are, we could do without all of the altercations between umpires and managers and players. Those, more than the 15 seconds it takes to review a questionable call, are what slow the games down.

    This is a problem that MLB shares with the NBA, and neither sport benefits from having power-tripping umpires and referees injecting themselves into the product. Nobody’s paying to see them, so the leagues should do everything possible to minimize their roles and let the players settle things on the field.

Speed up the Game

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    Everyone agrees that baseball games are too long. While I won’t suggest cutting out the seventh-inning stretch, there are two other suggestions that could make a big difference:

    1. Enforce the Pitch Clock: This would solve two problems. It takes pitchers out of these silly routines that create eons between pitches, and it would force hitters to stay in the batter's box.

    If you structure the rule so that the pitcher has to deliver the pitch, regardless of whether or not the batter is set, it forces both players to move it along. There’s no question that this could easily shave 30 minutes off of a game, and the MLB rulebook actually calls for a 12-second pitch clock. Umpires need to start enforcing this rule.

    2. Allow Teams to Signal an Intentional Walk: Create a way for a catcher or pitcher to signal to the home plate umpire that they are issuing an intentional walk and do it with one pitch. Done and done.

Implement a Salary Floor

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    Major League Baseball’s revenue-sharing model is actually pretty fair for a league that has no salary cap. The problem is that teams aren’t required to reinvest that money directly into improving the on-field product.

    Since teams don’t receive equal revenue shares, a salary floor may not be the best suggestion. But mandating that all teams allocate a certain percentage of all revenue sharing money received directly towards player’s salaries would help to improve the competitive balance in baseball.

    Parity is one of the biggest factors in the NFL’s surge in popularity, and it’s time that MLB got on board.

Embrace the Use of Performance-Enhancing Drugs (PEDs)

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    Despite the legal issues involved with the use of many steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, Major League Baseball has an opportunity to be a pioneer among major professional sports leagues by heavily investing resources into medical research and finding a way to embrace the use of PEDs.

    Last week, I wrote this article defending the steroid ERA in MLB in the form of a hypothetical confession by a fictional MLB star. One issue that I intentionally avoided discussing was the idea of embracing medical innovation instead of running from it.

    This is consistent with my more widely-held belief that many things in this country (marijuana usage and online poker to name a couple) should be legalized and regulated as opposed to being continuously criminalized.  But for the sake of this column, let’s stay within the confines of professional baseball.

    If we are being completely honest, we’d admit as fans that we are not as appalled by the idea of players using PEDs as we pretend to be. As proof of this, we need only look at the drastic difference in the way players that violate league substance abuse policies are treated in baseball versus the NFL.

    In baseball, everyone acts like the player has violated one of the Ten Commandments. In football, the player serves his suspension, comes back on the field and nobody thinks to start tearing apart the player’s right to be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

    Now that we’ve gotten that bit of hypocrisy out of the way, let’s all admit that seeing the human body perform at heightened levels fascinates us. Instead of forcing players to experiment in the dark, why don’t we start a movement towards legalizing and regulating the use of PEDs so we can speed up the process of figuring out what’s safe and what’s not?

    Why not allow players to step on the field, free of public scrutiny, and give the fans the best show possible? We pay a lot of money to watch professional athletes perform; shouldn’t we demand this?

    Major League Baseball always seems to be the last to show up to the party when it comes to embracing innovation (see instant replay). Now Bud Selig, the owners and the MLBPA all have a chance to finally pioneer something that would change the professional sports landscape forever.

    While a few of these ideas are somewhat radical in nature, you’ll find that most of them are simple fixes that would put Major League Baseball on the same progressive track as its North-American counterparts. So instead of slowly implementing each change over the course of several seasons, I say do it all at once.

    The impact on the game would be huge, and it would certainly attract a lot of attention. There’d be a slight adjustment period for all parties resulting in some initial growing pains, as all major change does. But at the end of the day, each of these changes would raise the public’s interest in baseball, putting it in a great position to reclaim its rightful spot as America’s premier sports league.

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