Monday, February 3, 2014

State of Baseball (My Take)

This week Tom Verducci grabbed some attention with his piece analyzing the State of Baseball. I don't want to get into critiquing his ideas to improve the game, but there are a few off the wall ideas that I would like to see in order to add some intrigue to the game.

World Baseball Classic moved to All-Star Break. Unlike many people, I love the World Baseball Classic. I think this is in large part because I view it more as a marketing tool for professional baseball than a legitimate competition. What I would like to see though is for the World Baseball Classic to be held during the All-Star Break as opposed to at the start of Spring Training. Hear me out on this.

The World Baseball Classic is held once every four years. In those years that the tournament is held, I would like to see it take place over a 8-9 day period. The first 3 days would be pool play in which all 16 teams would play on each day. The next 5-6 days would then be used for a single double elimination bracket with the remaining 8 teams.

In years in which the World Baseball Classic is held, there would be no All-Star Game. This brings me to my next point...

The All-Star Game shouldn't "count". Seriously, what a stupid idea to determine home field advantage for a championship. If you want to reward the better league, go with the league that had the better interleague record. If you want to try and reward the better team with homefield advantage then give it to the team with the best record. Oh, and as for every three of four years when there is still an All-Star Game, Tom Verducci is right, it is time MLB capitalizes on the potential audience.

Major League Baseball needs to take a page out of the NHL's book and create a Winter Classic Equivalent. The day after the baseball All-Star game is the most boring day on the year long professional sports calendar. If baseball doesn't take advantage of this captive audience, someone else soon will. I'd like to see baseball take Tom Verducci's idea a step farther. Instead of one marquee game, have three, each of which in a unique location.

One of the many beauties of baseball is that unlike other sports, playing areas come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, one of the reasons why pick up baseball is so much fun as a kid, is finding a little bit of space and adopting rules to fit a game of baseball into that area. When I was a kid, in a two block suburban area we created four separate areas that we played wiffleball, each of which had their own rules to make the game work. (Man, would it have been awesome to see the difference in park factors.)

Anyway, America has so much space across this country. How cool would it be to see three baseball games played a year in non-traditional baseball stadiums. Can you imagine this docket of games on the day after the All-Star game:

1:00 PM  - Mets vs Yankees in Central Park
4:30 PM - Cubs vs Cardinals on the Field of Dreams in Iowa
8:00 PM - Dodgers vs Giants in the Rose Bowl

Baseball would obviously need to get creative, but there are National Parks, scenic views, and Iconic Stadiums all across the country. Other sports have capitalizes on the intrigues of different venues, and baseball is probably the most obvious choice to do so. If nothing else, venues in non-Major League cities would work and could help to grow the sport. This brings me to my next point, which is that long term Major League Baseball needs to look to...

Expand into two more markets to give the league 32 teams. People are going to really object to this one, but again please hear me out. First, I want to see the situations in Oakland and Tampa Bay fixed. If that can be accomplished, that would give the league a strong handle on the 30 current markets. However, as cities and regions continue to grow there is no reason that 2 more markets couldn't support a Major League franchise. In order to avoid the complications of television regions, perhaps these teams could be put in places like Montreal, Vancouver, Monterrey, Mexico City, or San Juan. This would grow the league's North American foothold while also allowing the league to...

Realign into a more balanced format. I love the addition of the second wild card. At first I thought I would hate it, but I enjoy the increased value that it places on the division winners. I would suggest taking that a step farther. Instead of realigning into an NFL style format, I would suggest a more traditional baseball format. With 4 divisions of 8 teams, each division winner would receive a first round bye. This would get baseball back to its roots of true value in late season pennant races.

Of course, just like most fans I like the one game wild card games and I also know that most fans enjoy their team being in the playoff race deeper into the season. I would suggest adding a 4th wild card. This would mean 4 one game playoffs with the 4 winners advancing to head on the division winners. I like this because of the way in which it is a blend of new fan intrigue, but also gets baseball back to its roots of placing huge emphasis on division winners.

My final suggestion is probably the most radical, and it is stolen from professional soccer. I want to see the addition of a mid-season cup type tournament. In England, the FA Cup has been in existence since 1871. Basically, in the middle of every season, inter-dispersed with a team's regularly schedule games is a giant bracket. You can't tell me Americans don't love giant brackets. In 2012-13, the FA Cup bracket included 737 teams.

What I would suggest is a tournament which would encompass 160 affiliated Minor League teams, as well as the 30 Major League teams. The tournament would last 17 rounds and include 159 games. Just like the FA Cup, teams would enter into the tournament at various points depending on their level. The Burlington Royals for instance, would need to win 17 games to be champions, while the Royals would just need to win 5.

The tournament would begin the week prior to start of short season baseball in early June. The Major League portion would eventually begin on the day following the All-Star game. The final four rounds would then take place on Mondays in September. Just like with the FA Cup, teams could decide what emphasis they would place on their regular season versus a "Cup Run."

One benefit to this would be that the Houston Astros, who will long be out of the race by September, could put their whole focus on winning the MLB Cup, thus giving fans something to root for in September. I might do a separate post tackling the full logistics of such a tournament, but one thing that would be an issue is the extra games for the Players Union. In order to make this possible, perhaps the regular season would drop to 154 game format.

Can you imagine the excitement of such a tournament though. Minor League cities would have huge incentive to root for their teams to win the cups. It would also enhance the exposure and brand of Minor League Baseball. From a player development side, it allows front office's the opportunity to see prospects on a big stage (something that execs love when it comes to the World Baseball Classic).

Also, can you imagine the hype of a prospect like Archie Bradley if he were to start games in the run and carry a team like the Mobile Bay Bears all the way to semi finals? Fans would love this as an opportunity to evaluate their prospects against other competition.

There also of course could be an awesome barnstorming type of marketing opportunity here. Baseball unlike all the other major US sports could capitalize and get into the consciousness of cities all across the country. In the first round of each portion of the tournament, you'd likely seed teams of a higher level at home, but what if after that point it became a true bracket? Let's say Kyle Zimmer and the Northwest Arkansas Naturals get to the MLB stage and when their first game in Miami, how cool would it be if a week later, the Naturals were hosting the Padres in the quarterfinals?

This all goes without mentioning the financial side. The biggest problem would be to find a way to make it work for the lower level teams. An extra roadtrip out of their league's foot print probably isn't appealing, so there would probably have to be some help from the Major League level. At the same time, Americans love a bracket and since this wouldn't be a part of the regular season, baseball could parcel out television rights throughout the tournament. Think about the potential payday.

Perhaps, I will write a post to further look into how such a tournament could be structured in order to make sense logistically. I would say though that more so than any other American sport, baseball is in a position to pull this off. Imagine the buzz it would create in big towns and little cities all across the Minor League baseball landscape.

Anyway, that's all I've got. I know some of these thoughts are a bit outlandish, but these are just some ideas that I have had to grow the game's interest nationally.

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