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September 28, 2003

Prospectus Today

Quick Change

by Joe Sheehan

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That was quick.

Friday morning, I didn't give any thought to the idea that there would be no meaningful games left today. And I'll tell you that if I had given thought to the notion, I would have been thinking that it was the Astros, not the Cubs, setting their playoff rotation and recovering from a hangover.

I'm not a big fan of evaluating the character of individuals through their work, particularly when it comes to sports. I think we, as a culture, extrapolate far too much about people from the outcome of a bounce of a ball. That said, the Astros can't feel too good about themselves this morning; when you're tied with three games to play at home against one of the worst teams in the league, you'd like to think you could at least avoid getting eliminated in the quickest fashion possible. The Astros were blown out Friday night-down 9-1 after an inning and a half-and scored just two runs in yesterday's defeat. It was a disappointing performance by a team that had led the division for most of the second half, and which was set up to control its own destiny when the weekend began.

However, if you want to judge the Astros, what's clear is that their collapse, and the Cubs' taking advantage of it, changes the Division Series. With Friday's rainout leading to Saturday's doubleheader, and the possibility of playing meaningful games Sunday and even Monday, the Cubs were looking at having to open the Division Series with Shawn Estes and not having their top two starters available until Game 3 at the earliest. Against the best-hitting team in the league, one loaded with right-handed power, that was a recipe for disaster.

Having clinched, the Cubs can set Kerry Wood aside for Game One on Tuesday. With no playoff to play Monday, Carlos Zambrano is available to start Game Two, and Mark Prior can start Game Three Friday on four days' rest. I've been touting the Cubs' chances in the playoffs if they could get there based on the possibility of their rotation taking over a series. Their early clinch, as well as the extra rest it provides Wood and Zambrano, makes that a realistic possibility. The Astros were the big losers yesterday, but the Braves weren't too far behind.

The Cubs not only won their first division title since 1989, but they did so in a manner that gives them the best chance of winning their first postseason series since 1908. They'll go into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in baseball, having taken advantage of a September schedule put together by the Kansas State athletic department. The flaws-lack of OBP throughout the lineup, no bench, mediocre defense-are evident, but so is the potential for a run through October that looks a lot like the Diamondbacks in 2001.

--

Having skipped two weeks, Fox decided to come back with a Game of the Week Saturday. I'll concede that they had to set their schedule in advance, but they took an exclusive window so they could show me the Braves and Phillies, while using that exclusivity to shut me out of broadcasts of the Cubs/Pirates and Astros/Brewers games.

Here in L.A., I got lucky. When the Braves and Phillies were delayed by rain, Fox opened with the Cubs game and never left it, so I got to see playoff-relevant baseball. Kudos to whatever person was responsible for that decision. I understand that in New York, fans were treated to the completely meaningless Mets/Marlins tilt, with cut-ins from Chicago and Houston.

I do not understand the mindset here. Why are broadcast executives so married to the idea of regionalization when there are just two relevant games across all of baseball? Regionalization demeans the product by saying that you don't think people will watch even the best of it if there's no local interest. It is, in fact, the opposite of what baseball represents at its best: pennant races that attract national interest.

It's NFL thought, applied to MLB.

I cannot imagine the thought process that goes into showing the Mets and Marlins rather than the Cubs and Pirates in the biggest market in the country. This is an opportunity to show baseball when she's wearing the low-cut evening gown and her good jewelry: a big crowd in the game's best ballpark screaming its lungs out, a tremendous young pitcher trying to get his team into October, a media-icon manager leading the way.

You know what should have happened yesterday? Fox should have had a doubleheader in place, and it should have been touted all week as SHOWDOWN SATURDAY!!! with relevant games in both the early (1 p.m. EDT) and late (4 p.m. EDT) slots. They never should have asked the Astros to change their game time to noon CDT, but rather had that game and the Dodgers/Giants game available in the late slot, ensuring that even if the Marlins won Friday night, they could show something relevant at both times.

Fox acts like baseball is a pain in its ass-they'll have exactly two telecasts in the first four nights of the Division Series-and baseball lets it do so. I'm not sure exactly who that reflects worse on, but I do know that the game deserves a hell of a lot better than it gets.

It's time for baseball to demand more from its broadcast partners than a check.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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