Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 22, 2020

Ideas For Change – Good, Bad, And Dreadful

In just a few days – by the middle of next week at the latest, and possibly as soon as Sunday night – the strangest baseball season ever will be over. Sports fans in one of two cities will celebrate their second championship of this pandemic year. Either the Dodgers will join the NBA’s Lakers in bringing a title to the people of L.A., or the Rays will match the Stanley Cup won so recently by the Lightning to the delight of the faithful in Tampa. Either way, fans of the Great Game on one coast will finally end a long, long period in the baseball wilderness. It was 1988 and a World Series forever remembered for Kirk Gibson’s Game 1 home run sailing into the right field seats at Dodger Stadium as the rear lights of an unlucky fan who left too soon glowed in the parking lot beyond the stands, when the Dodgers last captured a title. And while the wait at Tropicana Field has been a decade shorter, that’s only because the Rays, one of six franchises to have never won a Series, didn’t come into existence until 1998.

Even as the two World Series contestants battle it out in what is now a best-of-five, fans of other teams have already begun the annual ritual of speculating on the changes that the coming offseason will bring to the roster of their favorite club. The guessing game is even more fraught than usual this year, with the losses incurred by owners during an abbreviated season played without fans in the stands certain to impact the budgetary decisions of every franchise. The vitality of the free agent market and the willingness of clubs to actively engage in trade discussions will surely be affected, but the extent of a financial pullback remains unknown.

But this year other potential changes await beyond the usual ones involving the movement of players. The just concluded shortest season was played with a variety of different rules, and now MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, team owners, and in some cases the Players Association as well, must decide which of the alterations to a game that typically changes only slowly will morph from one-time, pandemic-induced experiment to permanent shift in how the Great Game is played.

The easiest bet is that the number of at-bats taken by National League pitchers will henceforth be counted on one hand, even under a full 162-game schedule. The application of the designated hitter rule to both leagues has been coming for years, and now that it’s in place the likelihood of the DH being dislodged is negligible. Less certain are the futures of expanded rosters and the gimmick of starting extra innings with runners on second. The latter has its boosters, including Manfred, but it seems fair to ask if placing a base runner halfway to home in every extra frame is an improvement, why was this 2020 rule change abandoned for the most consequential games of the year, those played in the postseason?

Then there is the very structure of the playoffs, which were expanded this year to include more than half of big league teams. Here too, the commissioner has expressed his fondness for a postseason field larger than the three division winners plus two Wild Cards that have qualified for each league’s bracket since 2012. Manfred’s giddy support, coupled with the lure of television revenue from more postseason play, may well be enough to make expanded playoffs inevitable, despite the fact that some of the first round contests this year had ratings no better than those of a regional cable network broadcasting a weekend series between division rivals during the regular season.

Hopefully, the eventual structure of baseball’s season-ending tournament will at least be more carefully thought out than this year’s wide-open free for all. For sports’ longest season to remain meaningful, for fans to want to continue to head to the ballpark in April and June and August, the standings that result from all those games must be rewarded. Giving more than half of all clubs a ticket to October greatly lessens the value of striving for many months to win a division, and, as shown in this short season, it opens the door to clubs that can’t even manage to post a winning record during regular season play finding themselves just a two-week hot streak away from playing for the Great Game’s ultimate glory.

But the worst idea of all has been advanced by player agent Scott Boras, never one to be shy with unsolicited advice. As all fans know, after the opening round, this year’s playoffs were staged at neutral sites, with the American League bracket contested at the two southern California ballparks normally home to NL franchises, while the two AL stadiums in Texas were used for the National League division and league championship series, with the Rangers new ballpark also hosting the World Series. Now Boras, who first made the suggestion privately to commissioner Bud Selig more than a decade ago, has publicly proposed making a neutral site World Series a permanent fixture of the Great Game.

This season’s setup was designed to limit travel and make it possible to play the DS and LCS without days off, both goals occasioned by the pandemic. But Boras envisions a week-long World Series extravaganza, replete with corporate parties, major entertainment, and assorted other diversions, presumably with some baseball games squeezed in for anyone who might be interested. His model is of course the Super Bowl. But from its first staging, before it had been given its superlative name, the NFL’s season-ending contest has always been played at a neutral site. So football fans have never been told, as Boras would happily tell baseball partisans, that they must sacrifice the chance to see their team play for a title on their home field for the greater good of corporate sponsors and momentary fans who arrive on private jets. And the super-agent’s grand vision ignores the minor detail that the Super Bowl is one game – the clearly defined climax – while the World Series can be anywhere from four to seven. How appealing will those grand shindigs scheduled for the end of the week be if the two teams that are supposedly the center of attention have already finished their business and headed home, one to lick its wounds and the other to plan a parade?

It’s an old idea, one that Scott Boras would no doubt have trouble grasping, though that does nothing to diminish its validity. Sometimes, less is more.

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