If it feels like baseball is getting closer to its rebirth, you're right—it is.
According to an industry source familiar with the ongoing discussions at the commissioner's office, the season might start by late June or early July to squeeze in 100 or so games. This isn't just wish-casting, either. Momentum is building from both owners and players to do whatever's necessary to play ball in 2020.
Clearly, this is a best-case scenario contingent on the containment of the COVID-19 virus over the next 60 days. Secondly, the two sides have to agree on how much the players should be paid in a truncated season.
There's a mountain of negotiating ahead with understandable caution about moving too quickly. As one executive told B/R, "What if you start [the season] and then have to stop? Forget about baseball, think of what that would do to the nation."
Yet there's a consensus that baseball in any form is a better option than bagging it altogether until 2021. That's why so many outside-the-box ideas are currently in circulation, including the report from USA Today that calls for the suspension of the American and National Leagues.
According to Bob Nightengale, who had a similar report on the timeline for return, the 30 clubs would be grouped into three 10-team divisions based solely on geography, in which teams play only within their division. As for the postseason, ESPN's Jeff Passan suggested a possible two-month, round-robin tournament similar to the World Cup. Yes, a 60-day shootout that would guarantee teams at least 24 games, ending with a champion being crowned on November 29.
The idea is breathtaking in its newness. There's no logical reason to oppose this experiment—not this year—and not just because it'll give sports fans a much-needed distraction. The proposal indirectly addresses two deeper-seated problems within the sport itself:
- The 162-game season has become an anachronism, an invitation for bad weather, injuries and subpar play. Other than historical conformity, there's no ironclad argument against paring back to 154 or even 144 games outside of the financial ramifications. This summer's hurry-up schedule puts the emphasis on the playoffs, where it should be.
- In order to combat tanking, the American and National Leagues could be permanently replaced by A and B Divisions—like the Premier League and the lower levels in English soccer. The elite teams play only each other in this realignment. The perennial losers are off in a separate league. They have to earn the right to be on the same field with the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros, among others.
Can either or both of these issues ever be fixed? A shorter schedule has the better chance given its historical precedent.
After all, 154 games used to be MLB's template until the 1962 expansion. That's when the New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s were added to the National League to create a 10-team league like the AL. Eight games were tacked on to ensure all clubs played an equal number of games against each other.
There's been no change in nearly 60 years, although Opening Day has recently been pushed to late March to keep the season from spilling over into November. As a result, the first few weeks have been more punishment than pleasure, especially in the Northeast, where the conditions have become increasingly frigid before May.
No one benefits from four-hour games in drizzling rain and 45-degree temps. It would make more sense to start the regular season two weeks later and tack on the games in an expanded postseason—when it really counts.
The Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo made a compelling argument when he told Chicago's ESPN 1000 in 2018, "I think we play too much baseball. Yes, guys are going to take pay cuts. But are we playing this game for the money or do we love this game? I know it's both, but in the long run it will make everything better.
"... In a perfect world, we'd start the season later and play a few scheduled doubleheaders going into an off day. As a fan you're going to a baseball game in April, and it's raining, snowing and [with] freezing rain. Is it really that much fun? That's my question."
The owners, faced with the prospect of losing the revenue of four home games, would surely balk. But that shortfall could be balanced out with more money for a greater number of clubs in October. Even before the pandemic, there was talk of a new format in 2022, which would grow the field from 10 teams to 14 and give the top team in each league a bye.
Crazy? Unorthodox? Heretical? All of the above if you're a purist. But the idea of emphasizing the end of the season instead of barely thawed-out openings in March and April should be seen for what it is—a modernizing of the sport that's overdue for a makeover.
And here's part two of the upheaval: penalizing teams that tank, a trend that has become a scourge to the sport. Granted, the race to the bottom is a theoretical route to excellence, proved by the Astros, who lost 106, 107 and 111 games between 2011 and 2013 en route to the No. 1 pick three years in a row. By 2017, with help from a sign-stealing scheme, they won a world championship.
Still, the teams that go through the motions are driving the sport's recession. As more discouraged fans have given up watching, MLB's total attendance has declined in six of the last seven seasons. Last year's gate of 68.5 million was the lowest since 2003.
Ten teams lost at least 90 games last year; four lost more than 100. That includes the chronically awful Baltimore Orioles, who've dropped 223 games in the last two years and didn't have a single winning season between 1998 and 2011. The same goes for the Marlins, who haven't been above .500 since 2009.
Those clubs haven't earned the privilege of playing the Dodgers, who haven't lost 100 games since they played in Brooklyn in 1908 and their mascot was the Superbas. Or the Yankees franchise, who haven't dropped that many since 1912 when they were the New York Highlanders. Or the St. Louis Cardinals, who haven't lost more than 93 games since 1913. The Cincinnati Reds have had one 100-loss season since their inception in 1882.
Those clubs have at least tried to hold up their end of the bargain with the public: Buy tickets and we'll put our best team on the field every summer. Those franchises—and their army of loyalists—are entitled to top-flight baseball from Opening Day on.
So bunch them together, the way it's done in Europe for soccer. Create three five-team divisions with the best records from the previous season, and group them by geography. That's your Elite League. The remaining 15—let's call them the Diamond Division—comprise the lower group. They don't get near the big boys; no interleague play.
That is, unless they actually win a certain number of games—let's say 95—or they win the Diamond championship. That's an automatic promotion to the Elites and an incentive to excel. Win and you climb the ladder. The Elites' last-place finisher gets demoted to the Diamond. In other words, you get what you deserve.
The Orioles and Marlins can spend their summers together in the mud.