I promise to return to jazz matters soon, but first a few thoughts on the currently nutso baseball schedule……….
For years now, the major-league baseball season has been a 162-game marathon, almost twice as many games as hockey or basketball teams play. Part of the reasoning behind this is that, as baseball is (mostly) a non-contact sport, the players can weather playing so much. And fans love the almost non-stop daily flow of action throughout the spring, summer and early autumn, with apologies to Ralph Burns and Stan Getz. Also, as pitching is such a variable and huge determining factor in the outcome of any given game, it’s thought that a season this long is needed to separate the good teams from the bad.
The problem with this “separate the wheat from the chaff” rationale is that there’s an illusion built into the baseball season that’s hard to see until you look closely: by design, each team plays an unbalanced schedule. By this I mean that as things stand now, each team plays its four divisional rivals 19 times, accounting for 76 games (4 x 19 = 76.) Each team plays 20 inter-league games, bringing the total to 96. That leaves 66 games, which each team plays against the 10 teams from the other divisions of their respective leagues. Even to the math-challenged, this doesn’t add up, as 10 into 66 works out to 6.6 games. Call me crazy, but there’s no such thing as .6 of a baseball game. What this means is that an American League team such as the Toronto Blue Jays will play a team from another A.L. division, like the Detroit Tigers, 6 times, and perhaps another, say the Houston Astros, 7 times. This discrepancy is not that big a deal over such a mammoth season, but still, the unevenness rankles. You would think the schedule-makers could come up with something more symmetrical.
These 6 or 7 games against teams from other divisions are small potatoes though, the real problem is having division rivals play each other so many times. The trouble with this is that the divisions are not even close to being equal. For example, take the A.L. East, traditionally baseball’s best, and stronger than ever today. This year it’s the only one that has four teams with winning records – the Red Sox, Jays, Orioles and Yankees – and is now a collective 34 games above .500. That may not seem like much, but the next strongest division is the N.L. Central – just nine games above .500, even with the Cubs owning baseball’s best record. Then there’s the other extreme, the N.L. West, collectively a whopping 26 games below .500. There are two really weak teams (the D-Backs and Padres), a fairly weak team (the Rockies), a wild-card contender just eight games above .500 (the Giants) and the leading Dodgers, who have fattened up their record playing so many games against not very stiff competition.
Proponents of the status quo would argue that the relative strength and weakness of each division is liquid and changes from year to year. To an extent this is true in theory, but in practice, not so much. Let’s be honest here, the A.L. East has been strong for ages now and the N.L. West has always had two or three pushover teams. The Central Divisions in both leagues are generally mediocre, with a dominant contender (like this year’s Cubs and Indians), a couple of pretenders and two weak-sister teams. The A.L. West and N.L. East have generally been stronger, though not so much this year.
My point is that it’s a lot more difficult to win a strong division than a weak one, and the unbalanced schedule only magnifies this inequality. And winning a strong division takes its toll on a team, especially on its pitching. Take a look at the Boston Red Sox, at 88-64, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, at 85-66. Which is the better team? Obviously, the Red Sox – not because they’ve won three more games, which is negligible – but because they’ve done so against much stronger opposition. But I’ll bet the Dodgers have a little more in their tank come October, we’ll see. The Red Sox are full marks for leading (and very likely winning) the A.L. East, but the other two contenders in the division – the Blue Jays and Orioles – are likely as strong as the other A.L. divisional leaders (the Indians and Rangers), but don’t have the advantage of playing weak teams like the Twins, White Sox, A’s and Angels as often.
So, the unbalanced schedule giveth and it taketh away. Some would ask, what about the A.L. East’s weak team – the Tampa Bay Rays – aren’t they a doormat for the rest of the division? Well, not exactly. The Rays have a losing record only because they play so often against their stronger A.L. East rivals, but as last-place teams go, they’re not all that weak. In fact, given their winning record against the Jays this year, I don’t understand how the Rays have a losing record at all, but never mind.
So, baseball’s company line about the long season being needed to separate the good teams from the bad has to be taken with at least a grain of salt. Having divisional foes play each other more often is desirable because it promotes greater competitive rivalry, so I’m not proposing that the unbalanced schedule be done away with altogether. However, I think 19 games is a few too many.
What I propose is not all that radical, as follows: firstly, reduce the season from 162 games to 160. This may seem a laughably small change, but bear with me. Have each team play its four divisional rivals 15 times, for a total of 60 games. This would at least cut down on the discrepancies in quality of competition. Keep the 20 inter-league games intact, if you must. (I have reservations about inter-league play, but that’s another argument for another day.) Each team’s remaining 80 games would be played against the 10 teams from the other divisions in their league. So for example, the Blue Jays would play the Tigers eight times – four games in Toronto and four in Detroit – and so on, down the line. Make them four-game series to cut down on air travel, save some fuel. This is a little more balanced and at least works out evenly without any of that 6.6 games nonsense.
But here’s the best part: take the two games we’ve shaved off the regular season and add them to the wild-card playoff format, making it a best-of-three series instead of a one-game, winner-take-all showdown, or “play-in” as it’s called. This makes a lot more sense than playing 162 games to determine the contenders, then suddenly turning around and eliminating one of them from each league on the basis of just one game. Well, doesn’t it? The one-game wild card showdown is exciting, but it’s hardly fair and makes no sense at all after such a marathon season.
It’s as if those running MLB suddenly notice on Oct. 3 that it’s been a long season – “Holy Christ, was that ever a lot of games! And it’s getting cold now and the days are shorter, so let’s hurry up boys and get the games that really matter over as quick as we can! Okay?”
Baseball added the second wild-card a few years ago to bring more excitement to the latter stages of pennant races. While it seemed maybe a little gimmicky to some at first – myself included – it’s largely worked. This year it’s given the fans of pretty good teams (the Blue Jays, Orioles, Tigers, Astros in the A.L., and the Mets, Cardinals and Giants in the N.L.) some hope and something to cheer for, making the games those teams play still meaningful. If the season were to end today, the Blue Jays and Orioles would play each other in one game as the A.L. wild-cards, with virtually identical records. Does anyone actually believe that one game would seriously determine which is the better team when they’re so closely matched, and have been all year? The team with the hotter starting pitcher ready to go would likely win, but do we really want a whole season to hang on that alone, after 162 games? I know I don’t, and not just because I’m a Jays fan. There’s no room for error in a one-game playoff, there’s a little more in a three-game series. It’s still a stern test and penalizes teams for not winning their division. But it’s a little more fair and balanced, a little less farcical. Best of all, with two fewer regular-season games played, this wouldn’t make the season any longer. This is desirable to say the least, because I swear to God one of these years there will be snow during a World Series game.
It’s funny, baseball fools a lot of people into thinking it’s not crazy because it’s been around forever, hasn’t really changed all that much, and is slow. The way the game itself is played on the field – the rules and dimensions and so on – is quite orderly and logical, at least most of the time. But the way the game has been run as a profession/business has been quite insane at times. I mean, for over 70 years black players were not allowed to play in the same league as white ones; this was thought to be quite reasonable. And for almost as long, baseball players did not enjoy the same labour rights as any other workers did in America: namely, the basic right to sell their services to the highest bidder in a free and open market. In any other line of work, if an average Joe didn’t get that raise he could always quit and go work for another company. But not in MLB, it was a closed shop until 1975 or so. This was all accepted as normal too, and now we have this cockamamie schedule. I have no delusions of grandeur here, but as a fan I hope MLB will stop the insanity and eventually adopt a sensible season along the lines of what I’ve recommended here. You know, something that reflects the balance and symmetry of the game itself, but I ain’t holding my breath.
© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.