Thursday, April 2, 2015

Four ways to make 162 games count for more

We're not exactly channeling Alexander Cartwright here, but we do like some new ways to look at baseball, if not new ways to play it. After seeing the regular season devalued more than ever by a  2014 World Series featuring a fourth-place team and a fifth-place team, we're making up ways to juice 162 games.

Alexander Joy Cartwright (1820-1892) wrote the basic rules for the great game (Public domain image).

Big Leagues in Los Angeles

I shall introduce some ideas here that many baseball fans will regard as inconsiderably whacky. I think they are whacky, too, but I like them, I'm happy to consider them and I believe Major League Baseball should consider some of them, too.

Before starting, though, I should disclaim any preference for new ideas concerning the competitive structure of Major League Baseball, which is precisely what these ideas are. Those who know me a little would call me, in fact, a "traditionalist," which doesn't really capture what I like about the old ways. I like the old ways not so much because they were traditional, but because they worked so well. I only propose these ideas because the Lords of Baseball (in Dick Young's useful phrase) have beaten the old ways so bloody that they might as well finish the job.

If we could go back to two divisions in each league and short playoffs without wild-card teams, if we could get rid of interleague play and the designated hitter, I would run  not walk  to that outcome. But it's never going to happen, so we accept the world as it is. We can't say Bud Selig's innovations haven't been profitable. The major leagues did a shade more than $2 billion in annual revenues right before the 1994 players strike and, now, 20 years later, they are approaching $10 billion. Who's going to listen to me when the other side of the argument says $8 billion?

So, I've capitulated, little by little, waving the white flag here and there, trying to make my peace with the new reality  interleague play and expanded playoffs with wildcards weakening the World Series and severing the connection between 162 games and the World Championship. For me, it stinks to high heaven, though I'm sure the $8 billion smells great at 245 Park Avenue. I believe Major League Baseball (MLB) could still have the $8 billion without mucking up its competitive structure so badly, but we wouldn't expect MLB to risk a penny to prove me wrong.

Whatever the case, we're both right. And wrong. MLB is right and I (might) be wrong because MLB has added about $8 billion in annual revenues with these innovations that I have never liked. I'm right and MLB is (definitely) wrong because Americans now are massively disinterested in the World Series.

Through 1980, the World Series routinely drew shares of more than 50, meaning, literally, that more than half of the television homes in American tuned into the World Series. Those audiences declined as cable television reached every stick in the country during the 1980s, but even into the 1990s the World Series still flirted with 40 shares. Starting with the first expanded playoffs in 1995, though, World Series ratings and shares are in free fall. Today, a 15 share is good for the World Series.

The severing of 162 games from the World Championship doesn't just hurt the World Series. It makes the regular season less meaningful. It is unsatisfying to see six months of a regular season just go away  poof!  over a short-run playoff outcome.  It's not even an upset when the Kansas City Royals knock out the Angels in three games. It's just the slightly less probable outcome, which still takes the superior team out of World Series contention.

I'm willing now to let the playoffs stand alone, because I don't have any real choice. The playoffs already stand alone. But, now, what to do about the regular season?

In my irritation with wild-card playoffs, I have, in recent years, worked up a few other ways to look at the regular season. If I can make the regular season more meaningful and enjoyable, then I can let the playoffs stand alone and not be too upset that they are only tangentially related to 162 games. I wouldn't expect this to work for everyone, but it works for me.

Good taste, of course, requires a fair amount of humility and discretion, so I have kept all of this stuff to myself for the last few years. But now that a fifth-place team has won the World Series with the San Francisco Giants taking it in 2014 (beating a fourth-place team, the Kansas City Royals), I no longer can maintain my silence. And there certainly are limits to my tastefulness.

So, I shall briefly explain four new ways to follow the regular season. They name championships in my imagination only. I follow them as if the teams are fighting for them with all their might, though we all know the teams don't even know they are mentioned in these ribald fantasies.

One of these ideas is specific to my own experience with the great game across more than a half-decade of long life living in all the corners of America, or, at least, visiting them quite frequently. That one, I'll save for last.

The other three ideas could be implemented within MLB, albeit with some adjustments in the way it schedules games. They work well enough with the imbalances in the existing MLB schedules, and it should be emphasized that the imbalances don't thereby create defects that don't already exist in MLB. I have, with all these ideas, attempted to make a virtue of a necessity; that is, the necessity of living with interleague play. Without that awful reality, my whacky fantasies about competitive structure would not be possible.

The West, Central and East Leagues

I shall begin with an idea that I already introduced some years ago concerning the alignments of the major leagues. MLB has kicked around the notion of re-aligning the American and National Leagues from time to time. I shall not repeat some of the plans for league re-alignment, because they are simply ugly. With those plans, the American and National Leagues as we have known them would be so badly wrecked that it would amount to the erasure of history. We already have erased the career home run record through sheer carelessness. Lets not do that with the American and National Leagues.

My idea is to overlay a structure of regional leagues over the existing American and National Leagues and let them play out simultaneously. It's really a simple plan. Just count the count the games between the teams in the West Divisions of the AL and NL as a separate league (we might as well call it the West League) and do the same with the Central and East Divisions.

A full explanation is in the original piece about it from 2012. It actually works a little bit every third year, the years in which the interleague schedules puts West vs. West, Central vs. Central and East vs. East. This season, 2015, will be one of those seasons, as was 2012.

The Traveling Trophies

I've loved the idea of traveling trophies since I was in high school and heard tell of a local high school athletic conference that put one on the line every Friday night during football season. It was the Ear of Corn in the Cornbelt Conference, an alliance of little Western Illinois farm schools. It wasn't the conference championship, but it was something like the world heavyweight championship of the conference.

Suppose, for example, that Rockridge happened to hold the Ear of Corn (And there really was an Ear of Corn, a gold-painted stalk of corn mounted to a trophy base). If Rockridge played Sherrard on Friday night, then the Ear of Corn was on the line. Rockridge kept the ear if it won, and Sherrard took the ear if it won, then put it on the line the following Friday night against, say, Annawan.

I used to keep Ear of Corn standings in college football way back in the days when I set agate at The Minneapolis Tribune, which takes us to the late 1970s and early 1980s. But I left those standings behind when I left the job.

I have been keeping three Ears of Corn in MLB since the start of the 2011 season  one for the National League, one for the American League and another that crosses both leagues. Naturally, the AL and NL ears are on the line only in games between AL and NL teams, respectively, while the interleague ear crosses leagues. Sometimes, then the interleague ear will be united with one of the league ears.

But the principle is the same as the Ear of Corn from the old Cornbelt Conference. If, say, the Cleveland Indians hold the AL Ear and they have a series of games with the Detroit Tigers, then the AL Ear is on the line in that series. Most series these days are three games, so it's usually a best-of-three proposition. Sometimes, the ear will be on the line in a make-up game from a rainout. Sometimes, of course, it's a four-game series, in which case, the outcome will come down to tiebreakers. Those details will be forthcoming as we track the Ears.

I enjoy thinking of these prizes as the Ears of Corn, but that trophy really is specific to the mostly forgotten Cornbelt Conference, which disbanded way back in 1974, and I want to respect that. So, I have renamed these for each competition. (There is, by the way, a newer Cornbelt Conference that's active, but it is Eastern Illinois farm towns.)

Anyway, the American League Ear is renamed the Killebrew after the great Harmon Killebrew, my favorite player when I was a kid. The National League Ear now is the Allen, after Dick Allen, who I revered as Richie Allen during that one year, 1970, when I followed him and the St. Louis Cardinals. And the interleague prize now is the Aaron, after Henry Aaron, who simply is the greatest player ever.

Along with tracking how these awards change hands, I also keep standings for how each team does in games for the ears, as well as how many championships they win and how good they are at defending them. The gist of the award is that a team that can win series after series prevails during the course of the season.

Ordinal Divisions

In American sports, the worst team is rewarded with the No. 1 draft pick and other considerations to ease its way. In soccer, the worst team gets kicked out of the league.

The soccer way has some appeal. Nobody goes from worst to first.

Soccer standings are fun and demanding. It's a long slog from worst to first that way  about four years. That means an organization really has to be solid in order to climb.

Going back to 2010, the 30 major league clubs have been divided into four divisions  eight in the first division, eight in the second, eight in the third and six in the fourth. Each year, the records for each team in games within their divisions are tabulated. Then, the top two teams in each division are promoted to the next highest division for the next season, while the worst two teams in a division are relegated to the next division down.

That's the general plan, with some specific rules to break ties and account for the fact that some teams will play so few games in their divisions from time to time that they can't be fairly promoted or relegated. It's a bit of a kludge, as the old-time developers used to call it, but it works well enough.

It will all make sense as it plays out.

Leagues with Only My Own Teams

I made a mistake briefly when I was a kid. Just one. I thought, when we moved from Minnesota to downstate Illinois, that I was somehow duty bound to switch allegiances from the Minnesota Twins to a more local team. I picked the St. Louis Cardinals.

After a year, of course, I realized that I just couldn't do it, and went back to the Twins. But I also picked up the habit of following the local teams wherever I have lived, which is easier to do, anyway.

As I follow the game, I find myself always following the teams that I have picked up through life  and it's a lot of them now, because I have lived in a lot of places.

First, it was the Twins, then the Cardinals. I discovered in downstate Illinois, though, that it was much easier to follow the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox (the White Sox were especially fun, with Harry Carey and Jimmy Piersall on the radio).

After college, I took a sports writing job in Cincinnati, which involved me quite a bit with the Reds. And lots of trips to Cleveland to write about the Indians showed me a lot of that club. In those days, I also got out to New York quite a bit in a baseball writing capacity. Even before then, I liked going to New York because ... New York! And there have been times when the baseball scene in The City have made me wonder what it must have been like there in the 1950s. One year, 1985, when the New York Yankees and New York Mets both were in hot divisional races, really dipped me into it.

Then, I moved to Texas, where I followed the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros. And now, it's Los Angeles, with the Dodgers and Angels.

So, when I sit down to watch baseball games for several hours per day, those are the clubs that I track. It doesn't make me especially selective.

Some years ago, just to make it all a little more interesting, I lumped these teams into appropriate leagues and began to keep standings. Originally, I put the National League teams (the Astros, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Mets and Reds) into the Chub Feeney League, named after the late former NL President. I put the American League teams (the Angels, Indians, Rangers, Twins, White Sox and Yankees) in the Joe Cronin League, named after the late former AL President. Each of the leagues counts only the games played among those teams.

Of course, I couldn't resist factoring in interleague play with an all-inclusive league I call the Bud Selig League, which divided nicely into two divisions  the East (with the Cubs, Indians, Mets, Reds, White Sox and Yankees) and the West (with the Astros, Angels, Cardinals, Dodgers, Rangers and Twins).

In 2013, the Astros moved to the American League, which threw the Chub Feeney and Joe Cronin Leagues out of balance. Regrettably, I had to expand the leagues to bring them even.

I lived in Miami for about half of a year way back when, and I have spent several weeks of my life at spring training in the Tampa area. So, I moved the Astros to the Joe Cronin League, to which I also added the Tampa Bay Rays. I also added the Miami Marlins to the Chub Feeney League. Now, with eight teams in the Joe Cronin League and only six in the Chub Feeney League, I needed two clubs for the latter.

I do have some affinity for Milwaukee. Being Twin Citian means one is somewhat joined at the hip with Wisconsin, for well and ill. We had a cabin in Wisconsin that we often visited when I was a kid, and there was a time in the early 1980s when the Twins were so bad and the Milwaukee Brewers were so good that Brewers fans usually outnumbered Twins fans when those two clubs met at the Metrodome. Hey, my little brother also used to be a Lutheran minister in downtown Milwaukee. Close enough! So, I added the Brewers.

Needing one more team to bring Chub Feeney up to eight, I cheated and added the San Diego Padres. I don't have even a tangential connection with San Diego or the Padres, but San Diego is pretty close to LA, after all, and one does meet a lot of San Diego people living in LA. Adding the Padres also adds a western club to balance out the games among teams a bit. I enjoy watching the Padres, too, especially when Dick Enberg is on TV.

So, that's the Four Ways  the regional league overlay, the Ears of Corn, the ordinal divisions and the teams I've touched. What the hell? And why not? None of it is more ridiculous than a fifth-place team winning the World Series.

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