Baseball’s spring training has just begun and America couldn’t care less.
Our one-time National Pastime has become a national snoozefest, with barely more interest in the World Series than in the NHL’s Stanley Cup. Baseball fans are getting older, the games are getting longer, and the product on the field is barely watchable.
Is there hope for a sport that used to dominate the headlines and now matters less than the NFL, the NBA, Nascar, and even eGaming?
Baseball’s biggest success is its greatest problem – it simply makes so much money. They recently sold their data streaming app for $2.75 billion, with a B. Why kill the golden goose, owners wonder. Why do anything that could alter or reduce cash flow? Why pay attention to how dull the game on the field has become?
Meanwhile, the disparity between wealthy teams and small markets continues to increase, and only a handful of teams have a reasonable shot at making the World Series, which is now played in such bad weather that attending games, especially in northeastern cities, in late October and even early November, is a chore instead of a thrill.
If baseball is going to regain its primacy of place in the sports world, small changes like limiting the number of mound visits isn’t going to cut it. Instead, radical surgery is needed. So here’s my Rx for fixing what ails baseball:
1. Shorten the games to seven innings. In the Minor Leagues, doubleheaders consist of two seven-inning games. Right now, the last two innings of a baseball game can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, with endless pitching changes, commercial breaks, and general boredom. Baseball shouldn’t take 3.5 or 4 hours, or longer, to play. Seven inning games get it done.
2. Shorten the season to 154 games, as it was a few generations ago. Or even shorter. The goal would be to play the World Series in early October, as in the past when the “Fall Classic” can be played in weather that’s half decent. And play the games in early evening, so that kids can actually watch. Let baseball own October as it once did, instead of ceding the month to football, as is the case today.
3. Instead of limiting mound visits, limit the number of pitching changes to just two per game. You’ve got your starter, you can bring in another guy, and if that guy falters, you can bring in a third guy…and that’s it. And if the third guy gets injured, you forfeit.
4. When baseball dominated the sports page, pitchers started what they finished. These iron men – the Seavers, the Gibsons -- threw 150 pitches and didn’t need Tommy John surgery. Today, young pitchers are so overworked from Little League until they get to the majors that they all blow out their arms at 22. So let’s eliminate travel baseball for kids, and all those other money-making schemes that cost families an arm and a leg, and eventually cost pitchers their arms. No more 100 pitch count. The goal is to finish what you start and eliminate push-button late-inning pitching changes (see point 3, above).
5. Change the way you manage the standings. The A group includes those who made the playoffs the year before. The C group are those with the lowest payrolls – the cheapest owners. And then the B group are the teams in the middle. Change the standings so that if you beat an A team, you get three points, beating a B team gets two points, and a victory over a C team gets one point. There’s no reason why beating the Red Sox or beating the Mets should get you the same value in the standings, as is currently the case.
6. Borrow the concept of relegation from Britain’s soccer leagues. In Britain, the teams that do the worst in the standings are dropped from the Premier League into a lower league and have to fight their way back to the top. Do the same thing in baseball, and owners will start competing like mad to keep their team and community from the humiliation of relegation.
7. Make all owners spend much more. Right now, baseball’s revenue sharing rules allow owners to put tens of millions of dollars of free money into their pockets without being forced to spend a dime of it on the field. If there’s a meaningful floor on what teams must spend, they’ll spend the money and try to keep from being kicked out of the major leagues (see point 6 above).
8. Shorten commercial breaks to just one minute between half innings. This idea speaks for itself.
I recognize that not one of these ideas has a fastball’s chance in Hades of coming to fruition. But the reality is that unless baseball comes to its senses and saves itself, it will stop being the golden goose for owners and instead become a footnote to sports history.