We Need a Revolution!: Ten Ways to Improve Major League Baseball

Posted on September 6, 2011

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By Geoff Ratliff

Jeremy Sickel, Editor

Major League Baseball needs help! I know it seems like the game is in good standing with attendance figures at healthy levels league-wide and unprecedented labor peace, but in light of the recent lockouts in the NFL (recently resolved) and the NBA (ongoing), the game has a perfect opportunity to reclaim its place as America’s Favorite Pastime.

The very thing that makes the game great – tradition – is also the thing that’s held the game back for so long. Football has experienced a tremendous amount of evolution and innovation in the decades since it was invented, benefitting 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, precisely because it is incredibly in tune with the taste of modern day fans. Going back to the leadership of the legendary Pete Rozelle, football has continued to capitalize on  its entertainment value; and the sport continues on it’s 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 of fans, 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 twenty years ago, that these arguments become more of a sense of generational pride where the answer to the question of who’s the greatest actually becomes 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 one hundred and fifty years ago, that even a thirty-four 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 numbers, and relies less on the mystique surrounding that player’s on field performance, making the discussions somewhat less sexy.

The history of Major League Baseball is unquestionably greater than that of any of the other three major North American professional sports leagues, and 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 on to the past with a death grip, unable to embrace some fairly elementary ideas that would perhaps elevate baseball back to it’s 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.

In light of the fact the Bud Selig’s tenure as MLB commissioner is set to expire at the end of the 2012 season, I’d like to provide ten suggestions for how I would improve the game if I were lucky enough to take his seat.

1) Treat the Game more like a Business: 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 sited MLB’s repeated rebuffing as a prime example of how maintaining the nostalgic feel of the good ol’ boys network has trumped getting the best owners in place. A different and more current example of how personal agendas have negatively influenced business decisions can be found in the handling of the Dodgers and their messy ownership situation.

Bud Selig’s attempt to wrest control of the Dodgers away from Frank McCourt has become a very public and extremely ugly affair. As a diehard Dodgers fan, I can’t wait for McCourt to be out of here, but I think that Bud has gone about this the wrong way. I don’t want to put all of the blame on the commissioner, as it is quite clear that McCourt is 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 has destroyed one of the games most iconic franchises, that an amicable resolution would be much more attainable.

2) Add the DH to the National League: Whenever you hear people talking about the DH, you mostly hear people complaining that the American League should do away with this experiment. Why? Why would you do away with a rule that:

  1. Would force us to see 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.
  2. Would create a game with no David Ortiz – one of the most personable, gregarious, and marketable players in the game – and no Jim Thome. Baseball rightfully and universally raised a glass to Thome after he reached the six-hundred home run milestone a couple of weeks ago. 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.

3) Revisit Realignment: The unbalanced schedule in major league baseball has become a serious problem because of it’s affect on pennant races. Teams from the same division, due mostly to the impact of inter-league play, face very different paths to try to make the playoffs. To address this issue, baseball should go back to the drawing board on realignment, creating two fifteen-team leagues. To add greater balance in the schedule, make it so there is one inter-league series going on at all times. If you combine this with the institution of the DH rule in the NL, you 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.

4) Shorten the Regular Season, Expand the Playoffs and tighten the Playoff Schedule: I’ll give MLB some credit because Selig seems to be well on his way to implementing this. 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 twelve games, giving us a one hundred and fifty game season. All of you, who are worried about how this might affect single season records and pursuits of historic milestones; STOP. News flash, the season hasn’t always been one hundred and sixty-two games and baseball should not be played in November, period!
  2. Expand the playoffs to six teams in each league; three division winners and three wild card teams, with the top two records in each league getting first round byes and the first round match ups 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. Create less off days between games and series: 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 first six months of the season.

5) Aggressively market individual stars: This is another area in which I have to give MLB somewhat of a break. Admittedly 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 half way 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.

A bigger part of this problem has less to do with cultural differences and is likely more closely linked to baseball being perceived as more of a team game. That’s ridiculous. Football is a team sport too and, unlike baseball, requires a lot more actual teamwork to be successful. Baseball is primarily a bunch of individual match ups combined to achieve a team result. This shouldn’t prohibit the league from pushing its stars to the point where they are known outside of the circle of true baseball fans.

6) Mandate that teams fluctuate ticket pricing based on night of the week and opponent: The Kansas City versus St. Louis inter-league series is huge and is usually on the weekend so they could charge a bit more than normal for those tickets. But when Baltimore comes to town Tuesday thru Thursday, the seats aren’t full at all, so those tickets should be less expensive. This would certainly bring more fans out to the stadiums, especially during times where fan’s are harder to attract. This would also help the owners from a revenue standpoint because, while ticket prices may be discounted, you would now have more fans in the stadiums to generate revenue through concessions and league paraphernalia.

7) Expand the use of Instant Replay:  I’m certainly not going to advocate on behalf of cameras verifying the calls of balls and strikes; a human element needs to remain within the game. But we also saw what the impact of NOT using replay to verify a very simple out call at first base had on causing Armando Gallaraga to lose a perfect game last season and bringing unnecessary scrutiny upon one of the game’s top umpires. Some people have somehow argued that we shouldn’t overreact to that incident and overrun the game with replay. Why not?

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 taking the 15 seconds it takes to get the call right, are what slow the game down. This is one problem that MLB shares with the NBA. The argument’s been made before about power starved umpires and referees trying to inject themselves into the product. Nobody’s paying to see them so take them out of the show where it’s not absolutely necessary and let the players determine the outcomes of games.

8) Speed up the Game: Everyone agrees that baseball games are too long. While I won’t suggest cutting out the 7th inning stretch, there are two other suggestions that could make a big difference:

  1. Pitch Clock: This would solve two problems at once. It would take pitchers out of these silly routines that create eons between pitches, and it would force hitters to stay in the damn batters 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 per game, easily.
  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.

9) Implement a salary floor: Baseball’s revenue sharing model is actually pretty good, the problem is that teams are not forced 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, however, mandating that a team reinvest a flat percentage of all shared money received directly into player salaries would help make the competitive balance in baseball even better. Parity is one of the biggest factors in the NFL’s surge in popularity; it’s time that MLB got on board.

10) Embrace the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs): I know that this is impossible right now because of the fact that steroids, and many other PEDs are illegal. I’m asking you to set that fact aside for just a moment and use some imagination. I wrote a long piece a couple weeks ago defending the steroid ERA in MLB, but one of the biggest issues that I intentionally left out was the idea of embracing medical innovation instead of running from it. This is consistent with my more broad-based 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 stick 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 guy’s Hall of Fame credentials.

Now that we’ve gotten that hypocrisy out of the way, let’s all admit that seeing the human body perform at new 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, thus allowing players to get back on the field, without 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 new things (see instant replay). This point alone gives it a chance to finally pioneer something that would change the professional sports landscape forever.

This is a lot to digest, and while a couple of these ideas are somewhat radical in nature, you’ll find that most of them are simple ideas that would simply put major league baseball on the same progressive track as its American based counterparts. So instead of slowly implementing each change over the course of several season, 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. At the end of the day, each of these changes would result in baseball making gigantic strides in public interest, possibly even putting it on track to reclaiming its spot as America’s premier sports league.

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