If there's anything I learned from my Twitter feed this weekend, it's that the football season is now underway. Apparently, we're actually in the second week of the NFL season, with the season having begun ten days ago with a Saints/Packers matchup in Green Bay. Who knew?
I'm being facetious, of course, but it is true that the start of the NFL season barely registers on my radar each year. Instead, I tend to be more focused on the various playoff races going on in Major League Baseball at the time. This year, for example, it's Boston's potential collapse under the pressure of a late-season surge by Tampa Bay and the Milwaukee/Arizona battle for the second-best record in the NL that has me ignoring the games on the gridiron. Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson, Jose Bautista, Dan Uggla and a thousand other players/teams/storylines also help.
But even someone like me, who puts nearly zero effort into following the NFL, can't help but be subjected to the sport once it begins. People talk about football constantly, from the play-by-play minutia possible thanks to the unpleasant combination of Twitter and DirecTv's Sunday Ticket/Red Zone, to everyone's
mind-numbing incessant piping about their fantasy team. No other sport can claim the kind of conversational critical mass that the NFL reaches every Sunday; it's the main reason football has become the "most popular" sport in the country (and, to a lesser extent, a major reason why some less-discriminating sportswriters call football "the new American pastime").
The NFL, however, only achieves that critical mass thanks to a massive advantage inherent to the sport: games are played only once a week. Sure, there's the Monday Night Football game and the (increasingly frequent) Thursday night games, but, for all intents and purposes, the NFL is a Sunday-only sport, and that gives the league a huge advantage. Fans only have to plan one day a week in which to watch the games – and it's a day where most people don't have to work, giving viewers a chance to eat and drink and socialize all day. The once-a-week nature of the sport also fits fantasy football – and *cough*gambling*cough* – perfectly, giving fans a full week to think about their lineup/team (it also means more casual fans can ignore their leagues for 6 out of 7 days if they choose). Everything about the league's schedule is geared around making it easy for fans to live it up one-day-a-week, a catharsis of weeklong fantasy stress via an orgy of delicious beer, nachos, and violence.
This has me wondering, how would America's true pastime change if it were somehow transformed into a once-a-week spectacle rather than the day-to-day affair that it is? With no other changes to the rules – a game is still nine innings long, players may not return after a substitution, twenty-five man rosters, etc. – how different would baseball be if each team played only one game a week for sixteen or twenty weeks?
The single biggest change would be to the pitching staffs. Teams would no longer need a five-man starting rotation. Instead of relying on the Joel Pineiro's and Rodrigo Lopez's of the world, teams would need to only find one (or two) good starters, who would only be asked to pitch once a week. Workhorse pitchers would likely be valued more, as their six-days of rest could open up the possibility of 150 or 170 pitch outings. Some teams, however, might practice the two-headed monster approach, where a pair of quality pitchers might combine on a weekly basis for four or five innings apiece. For those teams, the opponent need never face a single pitcher for more than one or two times through the batting order. However each team plays it, we're still talking about a league where only the 30-45 best pitchers have starting jobs rather than the top 150 or 200, with those jobs spread out much more evenly throughout the league. Pitching would be tough all over, with fewer bad pitchers in the league to water things down and the "Four Aces" mentality nearly impossible to create.
As for the other two aspects of the game – offense and defense – it's harder to say. A twenty game season makes each single victory that much more important. Some teams might see that as a reason to focus on ridding themselves of the little mistakes that cost games, instead valuing a strong defense to back their one great pitcher. The Giants, for example, would suddenly turn into a team who played 100% of their games with Tim Lincecum pitching. For them, a high-scoring offense would no longer be a priority. Contracts to the likes of Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff could instead be saved for more defensively-minded players who could more directly help Lincecum.
Of course, a defense-first approach wouldn't be the only option. Teams could just as easily turn to a more offensive-oriented mindset to earn those W's. After all, if every game you play is against your opponent's ace, wouldn't you want as many chances as possible to score runs? This strategy might even be more attractive to GM's because, with the smaller rotation and the lack of back-to-back games eliminating the need for a 13-man pitching staff, there would be plenty of room to store a few glove-guys at the end of the bench who could come in once a lead was secure.
For the most part, though, the pool of non-pitchers wouldn't change much in this brave new world. Tony Gwynn, Jr., and his slick-fielding, light-hitting brethren will still be in great supply, as will the Russell Branyan fraternity of big hitting clodhoppers. The top tier talent – Brett Gardner with the glove, Ryan Braun with the bat, Albert Pujols with both – will still be nearly-impossible to come by, forcing front offices to make the best of a difficult market. Whether playing once-a-week instead of daily would change this noticeably from how it is today is tough to say, but I doubt it.
So how would the fans react to these changes? Let's pretend for a moment that the "we can't mess with tradition"/"the world was better when the whole league was filled with Joe DiMaggio's and Mickey Mantle's" crowd didn't exist – that, through the machinations of the Men In Black or some sort of nationwide movement, the entirety of baseball fandom was in agreement with this new schedule. Would fans embrace the new once-a-week MLB the same way they've embraced the NFL these last ten or fifteen years?
As I said, one of the NFL's biggest assets is its ability to get its entire fanbase watching every game together, on the same day. If baseball was suddenly handed that same asset, I do believe its fans would do the same thing. A built-in excuse to get together and party and drink beers and watch sports for a full day is a very tough thing to resist for most sports fans, and I fail to see why baseball fans would be any different. Being able to tune in every week to a Cliff Lee vs. Felix Hernandez or Clayton Kershaw vs. Tim Lincecum or C.C. Sabathia vs. Jered Weaver matchup would be incredibly compelling. It wouldn't be long before baseball fans were crowding in bars with six different tvs all tuned to different games, or heading over to their buddy's house on Sunday mornings with a twelve-pack and some taco dip under their arms. MLB Sunday would be the summer version of NFL Sunday – with better matchups.
Now, don't get me wrong, I am not in support of this idea. If anyone even remotely considered changing the baseball schedule into a once-a-week, made-for-tv hype-a-thon like most of the NFL is these days, I would be the first person to place a call with the Faceless Men of Braavos. It is a terrible idea – equal to the likes of starting Adam Dunn at shortstop with a sinkerballer on the mound – and should never be seriously considered. But too many people today like to make silly and superficial comparisons between the amount of television viewers random NFL and MLB games get, so it needed to be brought up. The two sports are played and experienced in such drastically different ways that these comparisons always fall flat. Imagining a world where baseball is played like football in even the most minor way – on a weekly schedule – and discovering the differences that would stem from that even that one change helps us recognize just how different the two sports are and just how silly the comparisons tend to be.
Now that we're warmed up, let's try another imagination exercise: October baseball featuring Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Upton, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Roy Halladay. Sounds pretty good, eh?
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