Yesterday, ESPN’s Buster Olney listed nine improvements he would like to implement in major-league baseball. Olney touched on a number of hot topics, including the length of games and the ever-present debate surrounding home field advantage in the World Series. His list incited various levels of support and opposition, but I’m assuming that Olney endeavored less to craft an op-ed than to start a conversation. To that end, it was extremely successful. Many pundits and fans crafted their own list in response, and you can count me among those so inspired. Below, you’ll find the nine things I would change about the game if I had Rob Manfred’s power and enough time to bring my vision to baseball.*
*As a baseball fan, my interests and loyalties lie more with creating a watchable product than maximizing profits. I fully recognize that the preceding caveat turns this exercise into theoretical and unrealistic wishcasting, but why stop now?
1. Remove convenience fees on ticket purchases: We’ll start with something fan-friendly and self-explanatory. Currently, any time you want to buy tickets in advance, you have to order them from a team’s website, or a third-party service like StubHub. The third parties have their own set of baggage, but the team sites are a headache too. The biggest issue is that they charge a “convenience” fee for processing, regardless of whether you print your tickets at home, pick them up at will call, or download them onto your phone. As any fan knows, there’s no convenience associated with paying an extra $3 per ticket, particularly since the surcharge is unavoidable; it’s just a tax on buying tickets. If I was the commissioner, I would ensure that any fan buying a ticket online would only be paying the advertised price.
2. Eliminate barriers to ticket exchanging/re-selling: This isn’t an issue for much of the league, but anyone following the Yankees-Ticketmaster snafu can probably feel which way the winds are blowing. To summarize a long story, the Yankees have made it very difficult for fans to get into the stadium without buying their tickets on Ticketmaster; purchasers are no longer allowed to print their own tickets, which limits everyone’s ability to buy seats from friends, scalpers, or on a website like Craigslist or StubHub. While important looking people in suits will dress these decisions in fancy rhetoric laden with ridiculous phrases like “safer ticketing experience,” the reality is that these policies make it more difficult for fans to attend games affordably. It’s always unseemly when a multi-billion dollar industry squeezes every last cent out of its paying customers, and as commish I would put the kibosh on the practice before it spreads throughout the league. You should be allowed to download your tickets, sell them to friends or fellow Craigslisters, and pay less than face value for tickets to a game with thousands of available seats. Criminy.
3. Remove metal detectors from stadiums: There’s no evidence that metal detectors make attending a baseball game any safer. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, however, that the long lines outside of metal detectors can make you late for first pitch. There’s also no history of people bringing weapons to ballgames with the intent to cause mayhem, and even if an enterprising terrorist saw fit to do so, the metal detector wouldn’t necessarily impede his plan; instead of bringing a weapon into the stadium, he could instead wreak havoc outside the gates, where he'd find scores of immobile fans helplessly stuck in line while they waited to march through a metal detector. Ultimately, metal detectors are security theater, and if we’re going to trade freedoms for enhanced security, the security should actually be enhanced, damn it.
4. Reduce commercial break times between innings: To MLB’s enormous credit, the league did shave 20 seconds between mid-inning commercial breaks between 2015 and 2016. Honestly, I never expected them to do that, and it was encouraging to see the league share the burden of hastening the game with the players. Realistically though, if the league was serious about playing quicker baseball, the length of commercial breaks would go down further. Fans aren’t complaining about the time players spend playing baseball. The other stuff though? Nobody’s going to miss that extra Geico ad.
5. On Little League or Boys and Girls Club Days, give the kids seats in the 100-level instead of the nose bleeds: I appreciate that coordinating a Kids Day isn’t easy: many of them are on weekends, after all, and those games are often sold out. But this isn’t an impossible hurdle, either. The Mariners manage to sell hundreds of tickets in an otherwise unoccupied section of the stadium whenever Felix Hernandez pitches; surely they and other teams could give the Boys and Girls Club a few hundred tickets in the lower bowl on mid-week summer matinees.
6. Any pitcher entering the game mid-inning is not allowed to throw any warm-up tosses: Mid-inning breaks are annoying, particularly when two or more pitching changes stack up in the same frame as managers hustle a LOOGY in and out of the game. Rather than incorporate a drastic measure, as Manfred hinted at when he suggested that the league was considering limiting relief pitcher usage, let’s just address the core of the problem. Bringing a reliever in to the game doesn’t inherently require three minutes of downtime: it just takes a few minutes for them to warm up on the field. If we want to speed up the game a little bit, just get rid of the warm-up tosses. Pitchers ought to be fresh when they come onto the field, and from a macro perspective, having managers warm up their relievers a minute or two earlier shouldn’t affect the game too much. Some may argue that a reliever needs a few tosses to adjust to the mound, and that deprived of those, his performance may suffer. Given how dominant middle relievers are right now though, I can’t say I’d be too bothered.
7. Remove “this time it counts” from the ASG; team with the best record gets home field advantage: I don’t care that much about this one, to be honest. It’s a gimmick, to be sure, and I can’t imagine anyone makes plans to watch the All-Star game on the off-chance that it helps their favorite team secure game one at home in the World Series. If the league thinks that the conversation surrounding this ridiculous rule is a beneficial marketing ploy, I wouldn’t object too strongly. But it sure seems to make more intuitive sense to reward the club with the best record home field advantage. Use postseason losses or run differential as a tiebreaker if you must.
8. Eliminate divisions and re-institute the balanced schedule: This might be the most controversial measure here: divisions have existed for over 50 years, and the balanced schedule has been in play for the better part of two decades. At this point, neither is particularly controversial. That doesn’t mean that they make sense, or that there isn’t a better way though. Despite their prevalence across American sports, divisions aren’t integral to staging an exciting postseason tournament. The division format was incorporated to reduce travel expenses, and arbitrarily awarding division winners with a playoff spot ahead of teams with better records is a bug, not a feature of the system. Institute a balanced schedule and put the five best teams in each league into the playoffs. Apart from the fairer set up, fans will enjoy seeing stars from around the league come to their home ballparks more often; nobody wants to watch their favorite team play the Braves, A’s, Twins, or Padres 18 times anyways. Not convinced yet? Imagine that there never had been any divisions, and that MLB had always allowed the top five clubs from each league into the playoffs, seeded according to their record. Now, imagine that MLB wanted to shift from that format to the current division structure we’re all familiar with; would that make any competitive sense?
9. Implement a living wage structure for minor league players: Dozens of people, at BP and elsewhere, have said it more eloquently, forcefully, and persuasively than I could do justice here. The bottom line is that most minor leaguers receive a tiny signing bonus and then make a few thousand dollars over the course of a season. That’s well below minimum wage, and it’s embarrassing that a league of billion dollar franchises enjoying near-record attendance and profit margins is comfortable suppressing salaries in this minor. Playing a sport is a full time job, and the players should be compensated for their work.