May 7, 2003
When We Were Kings
Last week, I wrote about what baseball can do to improve the selection of owners. This week, I want to focus on the game's structure. Frankly it's a column that, if I thought I could get away with it, would consist of six words:
Stop trying to be the NFL.
Since 1994, when the game went to three divisions in each league and began allowing non-division winners into the playoffs, MLB has moved inexorably toward becoming Just Another Sports League. While the game's administrators like to defend the changes by invoking the need to appeal to young people and a broad audience of sports fans, the fact is that every single move has been reactionary, every one has eliminated a point of differentiation between MLB and the other three major sports, and none of them have shown any level of insight beyond: "How can we get more TV money right now?"
Before 1994, MLB was the only sports league that required a team to finish atop its competitors to be eligible for the postseason. It was the only one comprised of two distinct entities, with a championship that pitted teams that could not have seen each other during the season. Baseball was the game with the most significant regular season, and the only sport in which two great teams could go down to the last game of the year fighting to continue playing in the postseason.
It was exactly these things that made baseball unique, made it special, made it baseball.
Over the next decade, MLB went out of its way to eliminate all of those things, first by allowing second-place teams into the playoffs--which ended the 90-year tradition of pennant races between great teams--and then by whittling away at the American League/National League structure that had been in place for the better part of a century. Teams were moved across leagues and divisions, and two expansions in six seasons--solely for the purpose of heading off legislation and pocketing expansion fees--added to the chaos of the 1990s.
What was gained? An extra round of playoffs that has not once been treated as more than an afterthought by the game and its media partners. From the regionalized nightmare that was The Baseball Network to the remote roulette we've had to play in recent years--ABC Family? Fox Sports Net? Spice Platinum?--baseball's Division Series has been an ugly stepchild to both the game and the networks it purportedly was created to placate.
If baseball is going to get back to where it was, it has to do so by emphasizing how it's different from the rest of the crowded sports landscape. That won't happen with expanded playoffs or wild-card teams or regionalized telecasts. It happens by baseball getting back to what it did well when it was king, as recently as the 1980s. There are a few ways this can happen, but they all have certain principles at their core.
One is bringing back division races. None of the other sports leagues have significant drama between good teams at the end of their seasons. This is what baseball has always done best, and what it needs to get back to, first and foremost. To do this, baseball has to eliminate the back door that destroys real races: the wild card.
There are two ways to do this, and either is reasonable. The first would be by allowing only the six division winners into the playoffs, and having the team in each league with the best record take a week off while the other two played a best-of-five series.
The second plan involves contraction, and I don't mean the "let's try and gain some leverage over the union and local governments" kind. I mean a plan that eliminates two teams as part of a positive restructuring of the game. In that case, the leagues would revert to their 1993 construct, with two divisions in each league, and those winners squaring off in a best-of-seven, winners go to the World Series.
Let me head off a few hundred e-mails: I know this is something of a pie-in-the-sky notion. No major pro sport has ever reduced the size of its playoffs, and expecting MLB to do so is, well, not realistic. Perhaps, but I would ask: What is lost in doing so? If the Division Series was so important that networks were blowing out their schedules to run it, I'd be all for it, but that isn't the case. The games haven't been able to push the NFL off a time slot, and last year, there was one night on which Fox declined to run a game, preferring instead to show an early episode of a since-deceased show. ("Firefly," maybe? I honestly don't remember. I'll be shocked if anyone does.)
If the Division Series exists to provide product, but that product is shunted off to random cable channels, what the hell is the point?
In conjunction with whatever plan they choose, baseball has to get back to weekly national telecasts on free TV. One game, nationwide, at the same time every week, April through September. Baseball got on the wrong track back in 1990, when it ended a relationship with a network that was a true partner--NBC--and started one with CBS, who had no idea what to do with baseball except use it to bracket promos for "Evening Shade" and "Goiter Talk with Bob Newhart." It's time to rectify that mistake, to stop feeding the myth that people in Los Angeles won't watch a Phillies/Braves game. They will if you promote that game as being great baseball, as being important to a pennant race and featuring exciting stars.
Basically, instead of letting its broadcast partners dictate to them, baseball has to set its own agenda and drag the networks with them. It has to stop pretending that a stupid, do-nothing idea like granting home-field advantage to the league whose team wins the World Series is a solution. Starting the All-Star Game at 8 p.m., limiting roster size to 28 and impressing upon the participants--players and managers--that the game should be taken seriously is a solution, not false incentives dreamed up by some junior executive at News Corp.
Here's the other thing. MLB has to make its changes, and then has to brag about them. Shout it from the hilltops: "Baseball is about greatness, not mediocrity." Baseball provides the true drama of worthies battling over six months, not the false theater of whether a .500 team can push a .700 team to a sixth game in the first two weeks of a 10-week playoff season. Embrace the differences between baseball and other sports, and use them to sell the game to not only the people alienated over the past decade, but to new fans who maybe, just maybe, can tell the difference between a meaningful regular season and a six-month exhibition.
Will all this mean taking less revenue? Quite possibly in the short term, although I don't know that it's a certainty. It really doesn't matter; baseball has to, at some point, stop making decisions based on the immediate monetary benefit. It started doing cash grabs in 1989, when it negotiated the CBS deal, and that route has led to years of declining ratings and bad decisions piled one on top of the other.
This is a long-term plan, not a short-term one, and it ties in to what I wrote last week about getting owners who are committed to the game, who are willing to take a short-term cash flow hit in return for long-term growth. If you have owners who can see beyond a five-year window, you can worry less about the next round of expansion fees or relocation money, and less about two-tenths of a ratings point or a couple million bucks per team in national TV money. You can implement ideas that are designed to build an audience, a fan base, a following, people who will care about your game not just for three weeks every October, but for a lifetime.
That's what baseball was. That's what baseball can still be, because at the core of all this talk about marketing and playoffs and television is the greatest game there is.