Baseball no longer has the sports headlines to itself.
College football kicked off over the past weekend with the NFL set to begin its full slate of games this coming Sunday, Sept. 9. (The regular season technically begins Wednesday, Sept. 5 when the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants play the season opener.)
Though many sports fans will now abandon baseball for football—or at least show less interest—they're leaving baseball when the sport is at its best. September is when the drama intensifies. Five months of the regular season have been prologue to the playoff races. This year, two additional wild-card playoff spots have added more teams to the suspense.
September baseball—and the pennant-race excitement that comes with it—is more exciting than what the NFL offers at the same time. There are more games to determine who makes it to the postseason. More teams are alive for playoff bids. And the game itself moves at a more natural pace, unencumbered by the constant, overbearing presence of instant replay.
It's There Every Night
How do you watch your favorite TV shows these days? Do you follow the weekly broadcast schedule, waiting faithfully for a new episode every seven days? Or do you binge on multiple episodes when that particular show is available on DVD or On Demand?
Coming off the Labor Day holiday weekend, some of you reading this may have caught up on a TV show—perhaps even through a full season's worth of episodes—with your extra time off.
If that's your style, then baseball's schedule might suit you better. Games are on every night, not just Sunday (and Monday). There's no waiting a full week for the next game, trying to sate your appetite with game stories, analysis, breakdowns and previews, as there is with football.
With baseball, you get a new game the next day. The results and implications are immediate. There's no void to fill. You get those game stories, analysis (more than ever, really) and previews, too. But reading them while trying to keep pace with the schedule is almost like reading while running on a treadmill. Baseball keeps going. It doesn't stop for a one-week break.
The Stakes are Higher
By virtue of its smaller, 16-game schedule, every NFL game has significance. One loss really can matter through the course of a season.
But there is sort of a feeling-out process during the first four weeks of the season. Teams haven't quite come together yet. Players are still becoming familiar with the schemes. Coaches are still figuring out which combination of 22 guys is the best for winning games.
At the same time, baseball is in the pennant race. Teams are contending for division titles and wild-card playoff spots. Hitters are competing for batting titles and home run championships. The stakes are high every night.
For those teams not in contention, young players often get an opportunity to develop. Fans get a look at potential stars called up from the minor leagues. They get to invest their interest in the future of the team. Coaches and general managers use this time to determine if these prospects are actual major leaguers. These games matter for the long-term health of the franchise.
During this point of the season, every baseball game has significance, too. One win or loss can determine the outcome of a playoff race. But more games also allow more chances to exert that influence. Long winning and losing streaks can change the outcome of these late-season races. We saw this last season in both leagues.
The Boston Red Sox lost the AL wild-card on the final night to the Tampa Bay Rays. In the NL, the Atlanta Braves ceded to the St. Louis Cardinals. A longer season with more games allows for these changes to take place. There isn't as much opportunity for in-season turnarounds in the NFL, as the good teams and bad teams typically establish themselves early on.
Replay Has Killed the Flow
Many sports fans like to complain about how slow the pace of a baseball game is. Players are just standing around, there's not enough action.
But have you really paid attention to the pace of a football game lately? How fast is that thing moving?
We see a few seconds, maybe up to a minute of action, but then the game stops as piles of players are untangled, chains and markers are reset, substitutions are made, plays are called in and formations are dictated.
Bogging down the pace of the game even further is the frequent intrusion of instant replay. Replay is used on almost every play now to double-check virtually all possible aspects of the game.
Did the running back or receiver hold onto the ball? Where should the ball be placed? Was the player's knee down before the apparent fumble? Did his knee touch the ground before his elbow? Was he in or out of bounds while making the catch? Was the quarterback's arm moving forward before he let go of the ball?
Exploring all possible angles via instant replay after each play may ensure that the correct call is made most of the time. But it has absolutely killed the flow of the game. Spontaneous enjoyment of a spectacular athletic play has been leeched away from the experience. A great diving catch can't be appreciated any more without the next thought being, "Oh, they're going to review that."
Be careful what you wish for when calling for wider instant replay, baseball fans. (I include myself in that admonition.) Replay's absence on obviously blown calls by umpires is frustrating, but MLB is doing the right thing in taking time to determine which plays should be reviewed under an expanded system.
Otherwise, baseball could suffer the same slowdown when it comes to game play. And as we know, the pace is already slow to begin with as batters constantly step out of the box to readjust their gloves, while pitchers go over signs with their catchers. Do we really want to add frequent instant replay reviews to that?
Don't misunderstand me. I love football, too. I was excited about the new Michigan football season, and continue to be even after the Wolverines were crushed by Alabama on Saturday (Sept. 1). I'm eager to see how the Detroit Lions follow up on their success of a year ago.
But baseball deserves my full attention right now. It's simply a more rewarding experience.
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