Archive for the ‘The Sporting Life’ Category

Baseball Celebrity and the End of the Steroid Era

Last night’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game was the keystone of  shortstop Derek Jeter’s season-long retirement celebration. As things tend to go in the sports media coverage of Derek Jeter, it was a bit over the top.  Yet, nowhere among all the plaudits did anyone see fit to mention that Jeter is the last active superstar of the Steroids Era.

From roughly 1995 to 2003, Major League Baseball experienced the scandal of a great number of players using anabolic steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), amphetamines, and other performing enhancing drugs (PEDs).  The fact of the matter is that if a ballplayer played during this era, the odds are statistically in favor of him having used PEDs.  Some used PEDs when they were on the bubble of making it on a major league roster.  Some used them to recover from injury.  Some used them in their “walk years” to try to get a favorable contract as a free agent.  Some used them once and then never again.  Some built their careers around them.

The peak of Derek Jeter’s career coincided with the Steroid Era.  While he’s never tested positive for PEDs, the rosters of his team from that era are riddled with known users.  The win-at-all-costs owner of Jeter’s team sought out the top superstars of the time, many of whom were later documented as PED users such as Gary Sheffield, Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Jeremy Giambi, and Alex Rodriguez.  With a line-up of juicers, Jeter’s team won 4 out 5 World Series Championships.  PED use spread through Major League Baseball and entire teams instructed their players in their use in order to compete.

And yet with PED use so widespread, we are told by the sports media that Jeter never touched the stuff.  Even with the rest of the team juiced up and pressuring their teammates not to play “naked,” Jeter maintained a superhuman virtue.  Of course, his virtue was not strong enough for him to speak out against PED use and inspire his fellow players to play clean.  And even if Jeter did play clean during this era, he still benefited from his teammates using them.  How many times did he come to base with runners on base who would not have been there if they’d played clean?  How many of Jeter’s career hits came against mediocre relievers because the starting pitcher was knocked out the game after struggling against a lineup of juicers?

My point here is not to condemn Jeter.  Even if one filters through the glurge written about him, he appears to be a decent player, and he’s a talented ballplayer for any era.  If I were a Hall of Fame voter, he’d have my vote.  The point here is to challenge the media narrative that has framed the Steroid Era as a few villainous players who cheated, while the virtuous Jeter stood above it all and still won.  There are some players for whom the evidence that they used PEDs is as circumstantial as that which I outlined for Jeter (such as Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza), but sportswriters are attempting to punish them retroactively by not voting them into the Hall of Fame and otherwise sullying their reputations.  Nowhere in the Jeter versus the bad guys narrative is there any acknowledgment of the complicity of baseball team management, the sports media, and the fans.  And Jeter himself who would have to have known what was going on, and as I noted above, benefited from PED use regardless of whether he used them or not.  The scandal is not that a few players cheated, but that all of baseball allowed the rise of PEDs because they desired bigger, better, faster superstar baseball players.

It’s interesting to note that in the decade since Major League Baseball instituted more stringent restrictions on PEDS, we’ve seen the decline of the superstar ballplayer common during the Steroid Era.  Many teams now try a model of finding many players with complimentary skills and abilities to build a team (the “Moneyball” approach) as opposed to building around a slugger and a power pitcher, at least those that have won the World Series.  Boston won with a “bunch of idiots” and more recently with a group of mid-level free agent signings added to players rebounding from injury.  San Francisco won 2 out of 3 years with a team of “misfits and castoffs.”  The Cardinals maintain a top-shelf team year in, year out while remaining largely anonymous.  They did have superstar slugger Albert Pujols, but continue to win without him.

Perhaps as we say farewell to Derek Jeter, we can also say goodbye to the the Steroid Era and its cult of bigger, better, faster.  Perhaps now we admire someone for being a great ballplayer without having to pile on the plaudits (or when a human being inevitably fails, the insults).  Perhaps we will be able to enjoy baseball not as a display of exemplary individuals but as a game played by a team (even at an All-Star Game).  That is my hope going forward  as we can finally close the door on the Steroids Era.

 

 

http://www.isportstimes.com/articles/10249/20140112/rod-suspension-gives-yankees-payroll-choice.htm

 

 
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World Cup Round of 16 Rooting Interests and Predictions

After an exciting round of group play, the knock-out rounds for the 2014 World Cup begin today.  Below I’ve listed the teams I’m rooting for and the teams I expect to win (not always the same) for each game.

28 June 2014

Brazil vs. Chile

This is a tough call.  I have a soft spot for Chile and they acquitted themselves well in group play, but I’ve always liked Brazil and it would be tragic if the host nation exited the tournament this early (especially after having to endure all the corporate, government, and FIFA corruption).  That being said, I expect Brazil will have no problem winning this game and probably advance at least to the semifinals.

Supporting: Brazil           Prediction: Brazil

Colombia vs. Uruguay

Colombia is one of the most exciting teams in the tournament with the most feverish fans.  Uruguay did well in group play, but aren’t going to go far without their bitey star Luis Suarez.  Colombia is an easy team to support and pick for the win.

Supporting: Colombia         Prediction: Colombia

It’s interesting that four of the five remaining South American teams are essentially playing for one semifinal spot.  I expect that Brazil will advance from this group of four, but the Brazil versus Colombia quarterfinal has the potential to be an exciting match.

29 June 2014

Netherlands vs. Mexico

Mexico is our biggest rival, but I’ve been swayed to their side this World Cup for several reasons:  CONCACAF regional pride, the performance of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, the exburance of coach Miguel Herrera, and their exciting style of play in a tough group.  I adopted the Netherlands in 2010 as my team to support after the US elimination (mainly because I had just visited Amsterdam that year), but the karate chop performance of the final kind of took the bloom off that rose.  Still, the Netherlands look like a dominant side that may advance all the way to the final again, and will be hard for Mexico to beat.

Supporting: Mexico          Prediction: Netherlands

Costa Rica vs. Greece

Costa Rica’s team is the surprise of the tournament, giant-killers in what should’ve been the toughest group.  It’s hard not to like Los Ticos.  Greece are also surprise members of the final 16.  However, they haven’t shown a lot of skill in the group stage.  I expect another Costa Rica win.

Supporting: Costa Rica     Prediction: Costa Rica

An all CONCACAF quarterfinal would be a thrilling thing, but I expect that the Netherlands will progress to the semifinals from this group of four.

30 June 2014

France vs. Nigeria

I tend to root for the underdogs, so I have to favor Nigeria here, but France is looking like one of the top teams in the tournament, so I don’t have much hope for the African side.

Supporting: Nigeria         Prediction: France

Germany vs. Algeria

Algeria is the other surviving African team who’ve drawn tough European competition in Germany.  I’ll root for Algeria, but expect Germany to make it at least to the semifinal.

Supporting: Algeria          Prediction: Germany

There’s an opportunity for an all-African quarterfinal coming out this group of four, but it’s more likely that European neighbors Germany and  France will meet to decide a spot in the final four.

1 July 2014

Argentina vs. Switzerland

I’ve not been impressed by Argentina who  won a weak group by basically holding out for a Lionel Messi wondergoal.  On the other hand, Argentina has enough talent that should be able to advance as far as the semifinal without breaking much of a sweat.  I haven’t got much of a sense of Switzerland, but I’ll be rooting for them just so that USA would have a more potentially beatable side in the quarterfinal, should it come to that.

Supporting: Switzerland       Prediction:  Argentina

Belgium vs. United States

Sure, Belgium is a dark horse to win the World Cup, and sure they won all three of their group matches.  Sure, the United States has struggled and only just made it out of group play.  But Belgium played in one of the weakest groups, while the United States faced down three challenging opponents without ever throwing in the towel.  I believe that we will win.

Supporting:  United States       Prediction: United States

While I think that the United States can make it to the quarterfinal, Argentina is the prohibitive favorite of this group of four.  Still, Iran held Argentina scoreless for 90 minutes, so maybe someone can pull of a miracle win.

Photopost: Red Sox at Fenway Park

My son Peter and I took in our first Red Sox game of the season on April 7th versus the Texas Rangers. While the 2013 champions have struggled early on, we were treated to a thrilling 5-1 victory. Yes, it was April baseball, as both teams had a passed ball and an error, and probably deserved some more errors. But a win’s a win. As an extra bonus, we received a David Ortiz bobblehead upon entering. And since Peter is now a member of Kid Nation, we were allowed to enter the ballpark early and watch the Red Sox batting practice from the Green Monster seats, which was pretty awesome.

Red Sox are the 2013 World Series Champions

For the third time in ten years, the Red Sox are the World Series Champions.  I’ve watched the Red Sox play in four World Series in my lifetime, and although I rooted for the opposing team in 1986, I’ve been firmly behind the Red Sox in the most recent three.  The 2004 World Series saw the end of the drought of 86 years without a championship (despite coming close several times) and the 2007 team proved that it was not a fluke.  The 2013 championship seems all the more special because it proves the resilience of the team coming back from a losing season in 2012 and a bad finish the year before that.

I particularly enjoyed this season because my 6 y.o. son Peter is a big baseball fan and devoted to the Red Sox.  We attended five game this season – four at Fenway and one at Yankee Stadium – and the Red Sox won them all (Peter’s lifetime record is a remarkable 9-1).  We also listened to games as Peter drifted off to sleep each night, so I’ve found myself following the team and getting to know the players much better than I have in many years.  The World Series victory came the day before Halloween when Peter dressed as his favorite player, Stephen Drew, and two days before his 6th birthday.

On Saturday, I took Peter to see the Red Sox Rolling Rally in the morning and then we had his birthday party in the afternoon, perhaps the best day of his life.  The Duck Boat Parade was a joyous occasion, and it was great to see so many happy people filling the streets of Boston to celebrate just six months after the atrocities on Patriots Day.  While we watched from Tremont Street opposite Boston Common, there was a moving tribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing on Boyslton Street.

Below are my pictures of the parade.  It was a fun day, and I hope we get to do it again.

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Doomsayers be damned: Baseball is healthy and ratings are strong

Liam:

Baseball … alive and well.

Originally posted on HardballTalk:

ST. LOUIS — I write often about how the “Baseball is dying” people and the folks who wring their hands over playoff and World Series television ratings are either overstating their concern, are misapprehending history or are flat-out wrong. It appears, however, that those people and those folks will continue to march on with that narrative unabated.

Keith Olbermann talked about baseball’s relative national irrelevancy the other night. The website Sports Media Watch, which gets cited by many looking for a quick and dirty take on TV ratings, tends to spin things toward the dire. I presume once the overnight ratings for Game 4 are in this morning — a Game 4 which played opposite ratings juggernaut Sunday Night Football — we’ll hear a new round of all of this. It’s an evergreen story, as the news media folks say, and it’ll be trotted out every fall…

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Photopost: A Tale of Two Ballparks

My son Peter and I were fortunate enough to take in two Boston Red Sox games in the same week. The first was a home game at Fenway Park versus the White Sox. For the second game, we ventured into enemy territory to see Red Sox take on the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

I’ve been to Fenway Park dozens of times in the 15 years I’ve lived in Boston and my son and I have been using 4-game Sox packs the past two seasons.  I don’t have much to add to what I’ve written before other than to say that Fenway Park is a great place to see a ballgame, the improvements in fan amenities the past decade have really improved the experience, and I love going to games with my son.

This was our first visit to the third iteration of Yankee Stadium.  Growing up in Connecticut, I attended several Yankees games in the 1976-2008 version of Yankee Stadium as a child as well as one college football game between Boston University and Grambling State.  I made my last visit to Yankee Stadium II in 2006.  Despite the history that came with the building due to the Yankees many successes, I never thought it lived up to its reputation as a great ballpark.  It was kind of gloomy and felt like a 60′s/70′s concrete doughnut squashed in an urban shell.

I’m happy to report that  Yankee Stadium III is an improvement on its predecessor.  We took the D train to 161 St, and exited right outside Gate 6.  There were several lines open so we swiftly made our way inside.  We entered a long concourse with a high ceiling that felt like an airport terminal or railway station.  While the Stadium has escaped corporate naming, the corporate presence was strong here (and throughout the ballpark) with large neon signs for the Hard Rock Cafe and other amenities.  There was also a large screen and news ticker showing Yankees highlights on repeat and reminiscent of Times Square.  The whole feeling was definitely to remind you that you were in the land of the Yankees now and playing with the big boys.

To access our seats on the Grandstand Level, we had to walk up a long, looping concrete ramp.  This was one of the least appealing parts of the stadium.  At least the ramps at Shea Stadium were exposed to fresh air and sunshine with views of the Manhattan skyline.  The Yankees museum could be entered from this ramp but the line was quite long so we didn’t take it in.  The concourse on the Grandstand/Terrace level was much nicer with lots of sunlight and views of the field and lined with the usual concessions and souvenir shops.  The only one we availed ourselves to was Carvel for an ice cream cone (Peter passed on getting the ice cream in the helmet).

Our seats offered a commanding view of the field with only the left field corner obscured by the seat deck in front of us.  (This would become relevant in the game when Ichiro made a catch against the wall of a drive by David Ortiz).  The centerfield scoreboard is big and informative.  There is a secondary scoreboard behind homeplate but I was surprised that there was only advertising along the baseline.  The out-of-town scoreboard was not visible from our location.  The corporate feel was strong during the game with lots of advertisements on all the scoreboards.  Strikeouts by  Yankees pitchers were sponsored by an appliance store and walks by Yankees batters were brought to you by a brand of whisky.

Our seating area was well-populated with Red Sox fans giving us a feeling of safety in numbers.  The rivalry among fans was good-natured on this day.  Several times Red Sox fans started chanting “Lets Go Red Sox!” only to get booed by Yankees fans.  Then one guy would chant “Lets Go Yankees!” and no one else would join in.  The top of the stadium is encircled by pennant flags for every team in Major League Baseball arranged by division in the order of the standings.  Appropriately, we sat directly beneath the flag that read “BOSTON”.

The game was enjoyable, with the teams duking out to a 13-9 finale in favor of the Red Sox.   Boston took a big lead early and then New York chipped away at that lead to make the game more competitive.  Definitely not a pitcher’s duel, or a short game, but a fun one.  We left after the game and it was actually pretty easy to get to the subway, and then board a “baseball special” train which has a poetic ring to it, like something out of a W.P. Kinsella story.

Yankee Stadium proved to be an adequate place to see a game.   Like Citi Field, it is somewhat corporatized and soulless, and a city like New York should do much better for its ballparks. They don’t compare well with ballparks in San Francisco, Baltimore, or San Diego that incorporate aspects of their cities and surroundings into the stadium.  It seems like they got the idea to copy the retro-ballpark style without doing anything to make it uniquely New York.  Perhaps they just need to be lived-in a bit longer and will accrue some charm with age?

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Photopost: Boston Breakers versus Portland Thorns FC

On Sunday, our family went to see the Boston Breakers play a soccer match against the Portland Thorns FC.  My toddler daughter Kay didn’t last long and after about 20 minutes or so my wife had to take her to a playground.  But my son Peter and I stayed to watch the entire game even during a rain shower in the final minutes.

Things started well with an early goal by Lianne Sanderson for the Breakers, but overall the team played sloppily failing to connect on passes and leaving goalkeeper Ashley Phillips exposed to attacks by the Thorns.  A great number of fans in attendance were there to see the Thorns superstar player Alex Morgan with a subset actively cheering for the team from Oregon (including a handful of supporters holding Thorns’ scarves through the games).  They were pleased to see Morgan even the score in the 23rd minute.

The Breakers were able to hang on until the rain began to fall and in the 87th Morgan made the assist for Melana Shim’s game-winning goal.  A disappointing performance by the Breakers, but a fun game with a good vibe in the sellout crowd.  This is the first time we’ve attended a Breakers’ game since their move to Dilboy Stadium in Somerville which is more intimate in seating than Harvard Stadium, but a running track makes the playing field feel very far away.  The Afro-Brazilian drummers who play during the game were at the far corner behind the goal, but I think would help the atmosphere if they played closer to the stands (in fact, there’s plenty of room on the aforementioned track).  Anyway, I need to get my butt in gear and go to more games.

More details on the game from New England Soccer Today and the Boston.com Corner Kicks blog.

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US Open Cup Soccer Comes to Boston

On Wednesday June 12th, the local soccer club the New England Revolution played a game on Boston soil for (I believe) the first time. The match saw the Revs face the New York Red Bulls in the Fourth Round of the US Open Cup.  If you’re not familiar with the US Open Cup, it is a knock-out tournament open to soccer teams from amateur levels to the lower professional divisions and on up to Major League Soccer similar to the FA Cup in England and the Copa del Rey in Spain.  This is the 100th year of competition for the US Open Cup which has a rich if overlooked history.

MLS teams like to schedule US Open Cup home games in alternate venues to allow a more intimate setting in front of fans who may not usually make it to their league games.  The Revolution wisely scheduled this match at Harvard University’s Soldiers Field Socceer Field.  Most Revolution games are played at Gillette Stadium, designed for NFL football for their roommates the New England Patriots, and located in the podunk town of Foxborough* about 30 miles southwest of Boston.  Both the field and cavernous stands of Gillette are ill-suited to soccer.  Harvard’s field veers to far in the opposite direction of being too intimate with seats for only 2,500 fans, but it is a good first step for the ultimate goal of having a professional men’s soccer team call Boston home.

A rainbow crossed the sky before the game and continued to reappear in the first half with the two ends of the bow appearing to reach from goal to goal.  The Revolution’s die-hard supporters groups marched in before the game and filled up a grassy berm at one of the goal ends where the lead the fans with rhythmic chants and flag waving.  Even some Red Bulls supporters came up to occupy the opposing end of the field.  All of this created a wonderful atmosphere for the enthusiastic fan’s in attendance, and most importantly the Revolution won an exciting game 4-2.  They advance to the quarterfinals of the US Open Cup versus DC United, which will be played Maryland on June 26th.  It was great fun riding the MBTA #66 bus home after the game on a bus full of happy Revs fan.  The team is now 1-0 on Boston soil.  Let’s hope we can do this all again.

Some more thoughts on the game from New England Soccer Today.

* Sorry to insult Foxborough, which I’m sure is a lovely town, but the stadium itself is poorly located with no access by public transportation and even auto access is along one road (US 1) that is several miles drive to the nearest interstate.  The NFL has wealthy season ticket holders, corporate interests, and lucrative television deals so they can afford to pretend it is still the 1960′s/70′s and turn their backs on the cities.  Professional soccer (like baseball, hockey, and basketball) needs to tie themselves with the resurgence and growth of the urban core as amply demonstrated by the successful soccer specific stadiums in Portland, Vancouver, Montreal,  Kansas City, and even Houston.  Seattle is even able to make it’s urban NFL stadium a big draw for soccer.  The Revolution or a new team in one of the lower divisions would be wise to settle into Boston and take advantage of an untapped market of college students, young professionals, and immigrant communities with time and money to spend.

 

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World Cup Qualifying – A World-Wide Approach?

The past week featured another round of qualifying games for the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2014 to be held in Brazil.  Under the current rules, the six association football confederations (loosely representing the 6 continents inhabited by humans) each conduct a qualifying tournament to determine which teams will represent their confederation.  The number of places in the World Cup Finals varies depending on confederation ranging from 14 places for UEFA (Europe) to 0 or 1 place for OFC (Oceania).

I got to thinking that perhaps it may be more fun and fair if for World Cup qualifying, the confederations were dispensed with entirely and qualifiers were played among national teams from around the world just as they play together in the finals.  The confederations are oddly aligned as it is with Australia, a continent in its own right, has been a member of the Asian Football Confederation since 2006 so they could play more competitive matches.  The South American nations of  Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana do not play in qualifiers with their South American neighbors in CONMEBOL but instead compete in the larger Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football.  So why not mix them all up and create a world-wide tournament.

My thoughts on the world-wide approach to World Cup qualifying is that it would provide several benefits:

  • Dispense with the somewhat arbitrary number of places awarded to each confederation allowing places in the finals to be earned through qualifying competition.
  • Allow nations with weaker teams to increase their level of competitiveness by matching up against some of the world’s best national teams.
  • On the other hand, the higher ranking teams may use matches against minnows as an opportunity to test younger players under tournament conditions.
  • Increase cultural exchange and international awareness among football players and supporters.
  • Standardize the number of qualifying matches played.  Currently, depending on the confederation, a national team may play as few as 8 matches and as many as 24 matches in qualification rounds, plus intercontinental playoffs for teams that did not qualify directly.  My proposal would have each team that makes it to the finals playing in 12 or 18 games.
  • Extend the drama and tension of the World Cup by having it build up over a two-year period of tournament play with the number of teams winnowed away until the 31 places for the finals are filled.

There are 209 member nations in FIFA.  With the host nation automatically qualifying, that leaves as many as 208 national teams fighting for the remaining 31 spots.  My proposal below works on the premise that all 208 national teams will be participating, although historically the greatest number of teams to enter qualification was 205 for the 2010 World Cup qualifying rounds.

Initially, I considered that the 208 teams could be drawn into 52 groups of four for the first round of qualification.  Then I considered the possibility of high-ranking teams getting eliminated by other high-ranking teams early on while weaker sides advanced from less competitive groups.  So for the round of qualification, some of the best teams in the world will have a bye as is already the common practice in the early round(s) of confederation-based qualification.

FIRST ROUND BYES

32 national teams will be granted a bye from participating in the first round.  The byes may be awarded to the top 32 teams in the FIFA World Ranking at the time qualifying is to begin, or they may be given to the 32 teams that participated in the previous World Cup finals, or some other methodology agreed upon as fair by FIFA member nations.

FIRST ROUND

Up to 176 teams may participate in the First Round of World Cup Qualifiers.  They would be drawn into 44 groups of 4 teams each.  Within the groups the teams play a double round robin (home and away against each opponent in the group) for a total of six games.  The top two teams at the end of group play advance to the second round while the remaining teams are eliminated from qualification.  To determine the order of teams in their group they will be ranked by points,then  goal difference, and then total number of goals scored.  If two or more teams are still equal on all three criteria then they will be ranked on head-to-head points, goal differential, and total goals.  If teams remain tied and it affects what team may advance to the next round then a one-game playoff will be played at a neutral location.

SECOND ROUND

The 88 teams that advance from the First Round and the 32 teams that received first round byes come together for a total of 120 national teams.  These teams will be drawn into 30 groups of 4 teams each.  In this round the top 30 teams will be seeded based on the current world rankings prior to the draw. Once again teams will play a total of 6 matches in a double round robin.  The top two teams of each group advanced to the third and final qualifying round.  The same ranking order and  tie breakers described in the first round apply.

THIRD ROUND

The 60 teams that survive the second round will once again be seeded into 15 groups of 4 with the top 15 teams seeded.  Similar to the first two rounds, the teams play a double round robin within their groups for a total of 6 games.  The top teams from each group advance to World Cup Finals.  Third place teams may have one more chance in a playoff for the final spot.  The same ranking order and  tie breakers described in the first round apply.

PLAYOFF FOR THE 32nd SPOT

With 30 teams qualified joining the host nation, one last spot remains in the 32-team field.  The 15 teams that finished third place in their groups will be ranked according to their performance in the second and third rounds combined (12 games total), with the top two teams (using the standard criteria for ranking and tiebreaker( advancing to a playoff for the 32nd place in the World Cup Finals.  The playoff would be a simple two-legged home-and-away tie determined on aggregate goals with away goals, extra time, and then a penalty shootout used to break any draws.

***

And so we have our field of 32 teams winnowed down from 209.  I’d think as each round progresses the tension and excitement would build leading into an exciting finals.  What do you think?  Would this be a fair and entertaining way of determining which national teams participate in the quadrennial event?  Or would it be bogged down by unbalanced matches between top ranked sides and minnows?  Would UEFA and CONMEBOL dominate the qualifiers and shut out the other confederations entirely or would we learn that the world is more competitively balanced than we ever imagined?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

MLB Realignment

On this night where Major League Baseball celebrates it’s All-Star Game, I’m pondering the future of my favorite spectator sport.  There are a lot of changes coming to the game.  This season, each league will be awarding two Wild Card spots meaning a total of  ten teams will be eligible for post season play.  Next season, the Houston Astros will move to the American League creating two 15-team leagues and ensuring the need for interleague games every day of the season.

Both of these changes are being made due to problems that arose from earlier changes in MLB in the 1990s (namely three-division leagues, wild cards, and interleague play).  I believe these changes will just make further problems down the road.  Proponents of the two Wild Card system say that it makes the Wild Card teams earn their way into the postseason by making them face one another in a one game playoff (where the rules of randomness mean either team is likely to win).  Far from being weak interlopers, Wild Card teams have often been the second place team in the toughest division and by my accounting 24 of the 34 Wild Card winners from 1995 to 2011 had regular season records equal or better to one or more division champions in their league in the same season.  In this new scenario, the 2001 Oakland A’s winner of 102 regular season games would have to play the 85-win Minnesota Twins to prove they were good enough to be in the playoffs with the division champion New York Yankees (95 wins) and Cleveland Indians (91 wins). Huh?!   If anything, it’s the “champions” of weak divisions that are getting an easy entry into the postseason and now weaker Second Wild Card teams will have the opportunity as well through a one-game roll of the dice.  I can foresee the scenario where 95+ win team fighting to the last day of the season for a division title and having to settle for the First Wild Card will have to face a rested team with 90 or fewer wins in that one game playoff.  That’s not good for baseball.

Interleague play has it merits.  It’s exciting to see intracity rivalries (Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox), intrastate rivalries (Giants-A’s, Astros-Rangers) and even two teams from cities relatively close to one another such as the Red Sox and Phillies play out.  It’s less interesting when the Red Sox play the Padres or the Brewers, and the Phillies play the Twins or the Mariners.  It’s especially confounding that the introduction of divisional and interleague play means that a team like the Phillies plays their interstate rivals the Pirates far less frequently than they used to.  More interleague play means that teams are playing fewer games against the teams their competing with for a title and often  playing schedules that are composed of teams of different strengths and abilities.  It’s all a bit of a muddle and in the end I think it makes the regular season less interesting and makes it so the teams that make the playoffs aren’t necessarily the best teams in baseball.

For some time now, I’ve been mulling over a plan of the changes I would make to Major League Baseball to make it more exciting, competitive, and fair.  On the surface, my plan seems radical, but I think ultimately it preserves (or brings back) many traditional elements of baseball such as the balanced schedule, regional rivalries, pennant races, and the end of interleague play as we know it.

My Proposal to Improve Major League Baseball

My idea for Major League Baseball would realign its current 30 teams into three regional, 10-team leagues.  A team would face the other teams 18 games (9 home, 9 away) a season in a balanced schedule of 162 games.  There would be no interleague play and no divisions so each and every game would be against a league rival.  Each win and each loss would move a team up or down in the standings.

The advantages of this realignment are many:

  • Regional play would promote rivalries, which would in turn boost attendance and television ratings.
  • It would be easier for fans to travel to more road games, again improving attendance.
  • National games of the week on network and cable TV will also be able to be scheduled to target markets in each of the three regions with appropriate starting times.
  • Regional play would also reduce the wear and tear of travel on the players.   In fact, MLB could promote the reduction in travel as a green initiative since it would reduce the number of air miles the teams would have to fly each season.
  • With as many games as possible played in the same time zone, East Coast fans will no longer have to stay up past midnight to see the end of their team’s road games on the West Coast and West Coast fans won’t have to sneak out of work to see the beginning of their team’s road games on the East Coast.   The starting time for  games will be more predictably the same time every day increasing television ratings.
  • The balanced schedule means that each team competing for a postseason spot is facing the same opponents for the same number of games.
  • Teams can no longer qualify for the postseason by being the champions of  weak division of five teams.

The Leagues

American League:  Baltimore Orioles,  Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays, and Washington Nationals.

The new American League brings together several historic franchises in the Northeast.  Six of these teams are currently in the American League including three charter members still in the same cities as they were in 1901 (Red Sox, Indians, Tigers) and the team with more AL pennants than any other (Yankees).  While Washington has had a National League team since 2005, it also has a long history of teams in the American League from 1901-1971.  This league would benefit greatly from many city, state, and regional rivalries and the ease of travel for visiting fans.

National League: Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, St. Louis Cardinals, and Tampa Bay Rays.

With six current National League teams, the new NL maintains the history with two franchise dating back to 1876 (Braves, Cubs), the birthplace of professional baseball (Cincinnati), and the National League’s leader in pennants and championships (Cardinals).  The NL retains one of baseball’s most storied rivalries (Cubs and Cardinals) and will gain new rivalries in Chicago, Missouri, and Florida as well as other regional face-offs.

Continental League:  Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland A’s, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers.

The name is a throwback to an earlier attempt at a third league as well as a tribute to how baseball has grown to cover the continent in this the most geographically spread out of the three leagues.  Six of these teams joined Major League Baseball as expansion teams with the other four originating in Northeastern cities before moving West.  Two of the largest states in the union – California and Texas – are well represented in this league as well as more isolated baseball outposts in Seattle, Denver, and Phoenix.

The Pennant

Historically, baseball awarded the pennant to the team that demonstrated excellence over the course of a long season by winning the most games.  Before the modern World Series began in 1903, the pennant was the championship, but even after that it was considered a major accomplishment.  In 1954, the New York Giants were given a ticker tape parade for winning the National League pennant but not for subsequently winning the World Series.  Since the introduction of divisional play in 1969, the importance of the pennant has diminished as it has been awarded to the teams that play in the World Series regardless of where they finished in the regular season meaning that some brilliant accomplishments such as the 2001 Seattle Mariners 116-win season have been overshadowed.  In my three league system, the pennant would be restored as an honor granted to the first place finishers in each league with considerable promotional effort made to make it an award nearly as important at the World Series championship.

Playoffs and World Series

The top three teams from each league would qualify for postseason play for a total of nine teams.

Third place qualifying round:  The playoffs would begin with a qualifying round for the third place teams. The three teams would be seeded based on regular season performance and play a three game playoff:

  • Game 1: #3 seed at #2 seed
  • Game 2: Winner of Game 1 at #1 seed (winner of this game advances to next round of playoffs)
  • Game 3: Loser of Game 1 versus loser of Game 2 (winner of this game advances to next round of playoffs)
Quarterfinals:  The eight teams would be seeded according to regular season record as follows – First place teams seeded 1-3, second place teams seeded 4-6, and third place teams seeded 7-8.  Then the teams would be matched in a best-of-five series with 8 versus 1, 7 versus 2, 6 versus 3, and 5 versus 4.  The higher seed has home field advantage in the series.
Semifinals: The teams are re-seed by regular season records to play in a best-of-seven series with 4 versus 1, and 3 versus 2.  The higher seed has home field advantage in the series.
World Series:  The two remaining teams face off for the championship of baseball in a best-of-seven series.  The higher seed has home field advantage in the series.

Other Issues

Designated Hitter: For nearly forty years, the American League has played by a different set of rules than the National League by allowing a batter who does not play on the field to bat in place of the pitcher.  With three leagues this rule would have to be addressed and I propose dropping the designated hitter and requiring pitchers to bat for themselves.  The rule encourages specialization by allowing pitchers who cannot hit and batters who cannot field to prosper in the game.  It also encourages aging sluggers to continue playing at the expense of younger, possibly more well-rounded players.   The National League has not suffered from the absence of a DH and if players feel that they are losing a professional opportunity then the rosters may be expanded to 26 players as a tradeoff.  At any rate, most DH’s today are able to adequately field and an organization that encourages its pitchers to become capable batters would gain a competitive advantage over those that continue to accept the canard that “pitchers can’t hit.”

All-Star Game: When the All-Star Game originated in 1933, it was a hotly contested match-up of two competing leagues and a rare opportunity for the fans of one league to see the players of the other league.  Today, many players seem indifferent to the All-Star Game, actively avoiding participating and the game itself is not competitively played with many substitutions made for show rather than strategy.   Nationally televised games and interleague play mean that most players are not strangers to baseball fans.   Three leagues would complicate the staging of a All-Star Game and I would suggest that it is a tradition that has run its course.  Despite not playing the game, I would continue the tradition of awarding All-Star honors with fans voting for their favorite players and a panel of former players and sports journalist also selecting the best players at each position who have been overlooked by the fans.  Other All-Star Week traditions such as the Futures Game and the Home Run Derby would continue based around a new mid-season celebration of baseball of my own devising.

International Tournament: Baseball is growing in popularity globally and I think Major League Baseball should seize the initiative by staging an annual event to celebrate international competition.  The World Baseball Classic has succeeded by pitting the national teams of several baseball-playing countries, but I’d like to see a competition that brings together the best league teams of world together akin to the UEFA Champions League in European soccer.  Since baseball is played everyday it would be difficult to schedule a tournament on the Champions League model, but I believe MLB could host an exciting, short tournament at midseason in place of the All-Star Game.

I would propose an 8 team tournament with automatic berths to the previous year’s pennant winners from the American, National, and Continental Leagues.   I would also give berths to the best teams of Central League and Pacific League of Nippon Professional Baseball.  The final three berths would be won through a qualification process among the best teams from other professional baseball leagues including the Mexican League, Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League, China Baseball League, Korea Baseball Organization, Chinese Professional Baseball League, Italian Baseball League, Honkbal Hoofdklasse (Netherlands), Australian Baseball League and the winners of the Caribbean Series.

The teams would be seeded into two groups of four which would play a three-game  round robin group stage.  Then there would be a one-game semifinal with the 2nd place team of one group facing the 1st place team of the other group.  The winners of the semifinals would meet for the championship in a one game final.  These games would be played over the course of five consecutive days in three major league stadiums (one from each league).  Two stadiums would host group play and a semifinal, while the third stadium would host the final as well as other events such as the Futures Game and the Home Run Derby.  Players who have been voted as All-Stars will be introduced in a pre-game ceremony before the final.  There are some challenges to this international tournament such as the fact that three teams will have to play up to five competitive games while the other 27 teams rest, but I think it would be an exciting alternative to All-Star Game and a good way to promote baseball worldwide.

So that’s my plan for Major League Baseball.  Do you think it would work?  Do you like the changes MLB is currently making?  Do you have ideas of your own?  Let me know in the comments!

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