Dave Nichols: Saving baseball from itself
Last week during the All-Star festivities, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said the league is ready to expand again.
Whether the game can actually handle two more teams when several existing franchises are floundering and trying to extort new stadiums from the taxpayers in those regions is another story. But if Manfred is saying it in public, you know there has been effort toward it becoming reality.
The All-Star Game is a great time to evaluate the health and status of the game. Everyone has opinions about what’s wrong with baseball and how to “save the game.”
I might as air my solutions in public as well.
It’s been well-documented that for the sixth straight season, MLB attendance is down. Gross attendance has fallen every year since 2012, and is well off the peak of 79.5 million in 2007.
Everybody has a theory why that is – from length of game, to pace of play, to proliferation of the strikeout among other ideas.
While all the on-field issues are factors, the biggest reason MLB attendance is falling is simple: It’s become too expensive as an “everyday” game.
The average ticket in MLB this year is more than $42. Just for the ticket. Parking in some markets run upwards of $50 for stadium lots, or you take your chances on the streets. Add in $8 sodas, $12 macrobeers, $10 hot dogs and $12 slices of pizza and you’d need to take out a second mortgage to take a family of four to the ol’ ballpark.
The price to take the family out to an MLB game has doubled in 15 years, while the national inflation-adjusted income has essentially remained stagnant.
Before we get to the on-field product then, we must consider the financial ramifications of attending a big league game.
Want to grow your market and attract a younger fan base? Simple: admit children 9 and under for free and tickets for kids 10-17 are $10.
Limit it to the upper deck or outer reaches of the outfield if you like. But also consider a reduced-price family section in the lower lever to entice folks to experience the game that way.
Then have a concession stand where kids can get a dog, chips and drink for $5.
It’s simple supply and demand. People aren’t paying the current prices so baseball owners, who still enjoy the antitrust exemption, need to adjust accordingly.
The Baltimore Orioles, a team that knows more marketing than actual baseball these days, tried out the “kids cheer free” thing this spring. It’s seems to me a no-brainer. Adults are bringing fewer kids to the game and it’s due to costs – and interest level.
Even the most fervent baseball fan can admit games can drag on a bit, which doesn’t always jive with the attention span of a middle-schooler.
But you know where attendance isn’t down? The minor leagues. Average attendance in the minors is up 1.1 percent over the past two seasons.
Where do you think those fans are coming from?
Make the games more fun. Between-innings kids games in foul territory? Sure. More mascots? Why not? A promotion every night of week? Let’s do it.
Expansion and relocation
No discussion of expansion can really exist without first contemplating relocation.
There are two teams in dire need of a new stadium: Oakland and Tampa Bay. Neither ownership group has been successful extorting either municipality of the land nor tax breaks necessary.
But if you’ve ever been to a game in either the Oakland “Mausoleum” or St. Petersburg, Florida’s monument to depression, the completely misnamed Tropicana Field, you know what I’m talking about.
For sake of this discussion, though, let’s assume that both cities finally get their new parks and don’t have to be relocated.
So where do the new teams go and what do we do with them?
Manfred suggested six cities as possibilities for expansion, which means they have already started vetting those places for the viability of stadium financing and construction. The six were Portland, Vancouver, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Nashville and Montreal.
The Northeast doesn’t need another baseball team so Montreal is out. And even though the NHL embraced Vegas, I don’t think MLB is ready for that with its gambling history.
The league owes the Mariners another team in the Pacific Northwest to even out the travel disparity, so either Portland or Vancouver is in. And the South needs another team so either Charlotte or Nashville is in. Both are attractive markets with other big league franchises.
Realignment and schedule
Adding two teams means we need to adjust alignment and the schedule. Again, there’s a pretty simple solution, and it’s a return to the balanced schedule.
There’s talk about eliminating the American and National leagues and aligning more like the NBA or NHL. But let’s stick with tradition of maintaining two leagues even if there’s no difference in rules or play.
We need to realign but maintain some traditional division rivalries, such as the Red Sox-Yankees and Cubs-Cardinals.
Each league would be comprised of 16 teams in four divisions of four. Each team would play the 16 teams in the opposite league in a three-game series (48 games), alternating as host each season.
Each team would play the 12 teams in its league outside of the division six times (72 games), and its division opponents 14, for 42 games.
It all totals 162 games, just like now.
Put the new Pacific Northwest team in the A.L. West with the Mariners, A’s and Angels and the new southern team in the N.L. “South” with the Marlins, Braves and Reds.
The rest of the divisions: N.L. East – Mets, Phillies, Nationals, Pirates; N.L. Central – Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, Rockies; N.L. West – Giants, Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks; A.L. East – Blue Jays, Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles; A.L. Central – Indians, Tigers, White Sox, Twins; A.L. South – Rays, Royals, Astros, Rangers.
No divisional rival has to travel more than one time zone. It’s fair and simple.
The game itself
Now, to the actual product.
We need to have one set of rules for everyone, so either adopt the designated hitter for both leagues or do away with it. My vote is for adopting universal DH.
I’m a traditionalist. I don’t have a problem with the pace of games, but lots of folks – read Commissioner Manfred and those that are advising him – seem to.
One of the biggest accused culprits “ruining” the game is the exaggerated shift to left-handed batters. Even though managers have been shifting against lefties since Ted Williams, the practice has gained popularity in the last several years.
And frankly, it works against the pull-happy, contributing to the all-or-nothing approach that’s led to the launch-angle epidemic across baseball.
So let’s make it mandatory at the pitch to have two fielders on either side of second base and all infielders have both feet on the infield dirt. That ought to get a few more ground balls to sneak through and make it easier to bunt, plays that generate action – something the powers that be want more of.
Another issue that grinds pace of play to a halt is pitching changes in the middle of innings. The game is so specialized now and geared toward hard-throwing relievers that the last third of a game can take up two-thirds of game time.
It’s tough to legislate forcing players to stay in the game for whatever reason, or limit a manager’s options to change pitchers.
Here’s an idea: If a pitcher records an out he has to stay in the game for another batter. That reduces the specialty one-batter appearance and increase the utility of the bullpen.
To avoid pitchers faking injury to make a pitching change, simply make a rule that if a pitcher is taken out due to injury, he must be placed on the 10-day disabled list. That might be harsh, but it’s a brave new word.
As for all those strikeouts, that’ll have to be a separate column.