Sunday, February 02, 2020

The MLB Solution

For the past quarter century, I’ve witnessed Pirates ownership demonstrate a steadfast commitment.  Not towards winning and fielding a competitive team, but rather, extracting every last drop of revenue.  Ever since Bob Nutting purchased the team, he has maintained the same strategic vision.  To maximize profit while cutting costs.  Even the hot dog inventory is open to investigation.  Even the relish and chopped onions are susceptible to scrutiny.  Our hillbilly billionaire buddy from neighboring West Virginia is both nifty and thrifty.  Cha-Ching.

Foul I say!

Nutting bought the franchise for 92 million in 1996.  They debuted at PNC Park in 2001.  It’s the self-described “greatest ballpark in America.”  Except for the fact that it's usually deserted.  Now, in 2020, the Pirates are worth an estimated 1.3 billion.  That's a pretty strong rate of return on a foolproof investment.  Not too shabby, eh?  You’d think all that cash would free up some room for free agents.  Think again.  Bob’s like a spent bowl of marijuana.  He’s cashed out!

MLB payroll:

1st in the league.  New York Yankees = $244,000,000
28th in the league.  Pittsburgh Pirates = $48,000,000

The median payroll is about 100 million.  More on that later.

When it comes to the Pirates, one thing is certain.  Our best players always seek out greener pastures.  And management is more than happy to oblige.  Cut and run.  Slash and burn.  Pump and dump.  Just to name a few… Andrew McCutcheon, Gerrit Cole, and now Starling Marte.  Hence, there will be no Marte Par-tay.  Maybe in the dry heat of Arizona.  But definitely not on the cold, soot-filled curbs of the Burgh.

This overall problem isn’t unique to Pittsburgh.  In the absence of a functional salary cap, the smaller market MLB organizations are increasingly faced with two distinct choices: try to keep pace OR discard, dismantle, and be mired in a continual state of “rebuilding.”  It’s a microcosm for what’s wrong with the league.  It's the fundamental reason why professional baseball is in a state of decline.

Maybe I should stop worrying so much.  Because Major League Baseball has a solution.  Yep, the "luxury tax."  A tax on the teams that shell out the big bucks.  But in reality, it’s mostly considered a “nuisance penalty.”  As long as ownership is willing to spend cash, the big market teams will continue to spend, spend and spend some more.  While most of the small market teams will be compelled to shed payroll and decrease fixed costs… at any cost.

One could argue that the actual, physical ballparks have an impact on the bottom line.  Hey, if a team is required to finance municipal debt, pay for renovations, or allocate a significant part of their operating budget towards rent and taxes… well, that could play a negative role.  But not really.  Generally speaking, this is another negligible concern.

Sixteen of the 30 current MLB stadiums were constructed after the year 2000.  Six others were built in the 1990’s.  For the most part, MLB has kept pace with the stadium construction frenzy.  And in a few cases, it doesn't even apply.  The quality of the venue is irrelevant.  Some of biggest teams (Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, LA Dodgers at Dodger Stadium) don't even want new stadiums.  They embrace the iconic architecture.  A certain level of deterioration adds to the mystique.  It must be the magic and mystery.  Hocus Pocus!  Voila!

So here's the point.  Major League Baseball doesn’t need a shot in the arm. It needs a steroid injection... right in the left ass cheek.  A blood doping infusion.  MLB needs help.  This ain’t the 1970’s no more.  Fan apathy is on the upswing.  Games seemingly last forever.  Baseball is inherently boring.  And for the typical family of 3.8 (mom, dad and 1.8 kids), a day at the ballpark can be a costly proposition.  Factor in parking, merch & souvenirs, $10 draft beers and $5 hot dogs.  You’re easily out a couple hundred bucks.  Why spend all that money when you can watch the game in  the creature comforts of home on a monster high definition flat screen?  Yeah, tell me something I don’t already know.

Just a minor detail here, but several organizations basically have a 0.0% chance of winning the World Series.  Just look at the 2020 futures market.  In a world immersed with distortions and fake news... Las Vegas never lies.  Why? Because it's always in their best interest to tell the truth.  How ironic.

New York Yankees    3/1
Los Angeles Dodgers    6/1
Houston Astros    8/1
Atlanta Braves    12/1
St. Louis Cardinals    14/1
New York Mets    16/1
Washington Nationals    16/1
Philadelphia Phillies    18/1
Minnesota Twins    20/1
Boston Red Sox    25/1
Tampa Bay Rays    25/1
Oakland Athletics    25/1
Cleveland Indians    25/1
Cincinnati Reds    30/1
Chicago Cubs    30/1
Los Angeles Angels    30/1
Chicago White Sox    40/1
Milwaukee Brewers    40/1
Arizona Diamondbacks    40/1
Texas Rangers    50/1
San Diego Padres    50/1
Toronto Blue Jays    100/1
Colorado Rockies    100/1
Pittsburgh Pirates    200/1
San Francisco Giants    300/1
Seattle Mariners    500/1
Kansas City Royals    500/1
Miami Marlins    1000/1
Baltimore Orioles    1000/1
Detroit Tigers    1000/1

Now if your odds of winning it all are 1,000-1 or 500-1 or even 100-1, your season is effectively over before it started.  Welcome to 1/3 of the league.  Welcome to the bottom 10 teams.  Overkill lead singer Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth said it best, “Hello, from the gutter!”

Notice how all the small market teams tend to congeal at the bottom, with the exception of maybe San Francisco.  Contrarily, the top 10 are all big market teams.  This is the status quo.  This is the norm.

Damn the preamble!

So without further adieu, here’s my proposal for how to FIX professional baseball.  
Let’s fill the seats and restore legitimacy to America's favorite pastime.  
It’s not as complicated as you might think. 

This is how we do it

I’m calling for a total Maury Povich makeover.  A fiscally grounded reconfiguration of both Leagues.  Instead of the American League and the National League, from this point forward, there shalt be the big market league and the small market league!  A team's designation will be based almost entirely on the size and population of the host city.  If your owner spends a shit ton of money and it’s a big city, you’re in the big market.  Contrarily, if your team is located in a smaller city (and your owner is a cheapskate tight-ass like Nutting) , you’re in the small market.  Not a terribly complex formula, eh?

Just consider me the 2020 Scrabble equivalent of Tom Hanks.

Do not fret!  We’ll keep the same names (American and National).  The same regional titles (East, Central & West).  And we’ll maintain the same rivalries.  But more importantly, we’ll add some better ones.

First off, the American League will be designated as the big market.  Why?  Because I said so.  And the National League will function as the small market. Why?  Because that's the way it is.  Every 20 years, there will be an owners meeting to determine if any of the teams on the bubble should be repositioned.  Kinda like a U.S. baseball census behind closed doors.  Anyway, here’s the new divisions for your perusal.

Okay, let’s get straight to the pros and cons.


The fundamental, overriding benefit should be pretty obvious.  The new configuration offers a realistic attempt to level the playing field and restore a sense of fairness, parity and competition.  Major League Baseball is losing fans.  Why?  Because many of them "no longer believe."  You gotta give them hope.  But that requires change.  It’s called “hope and change.”  Hmm, where have I heard that before?      

A significant reward will be the showcasing of big city, big time, big spending cross-town rivalries: 

New York City — Yankees/Mets
Chicago — Cubs/White Sox
Los Angeles — Dodgers/Angels

The statewide Rangers/Astros games would carry on unabated.

On a lesser note, there's more!  Behold the brand spankin' new, titillating, small market intrastate rivalries!

Missouri — Cardinals/Royals
Ohio — Indians/Reds
Florida — Marlins/Rays

The new rivalries are a huge element going forward.  It’s the secret sauce.  As it encourages road trips, charter buses, tailgating, hotel reservations, memories, etc.  MLB’s best kept secret isn’t the players.  Players come and go.  It’s the ballparks.  Especially visiting a new ballpark.  That is your marketing theme to support the transition.  It's about going to the games.  It's about the experience.

But first, an honest admission.  The season is way too long.  Each team plays 162 games.  And MLB isn’t going to shorten it.  Much like they aren’t going to impose a salary cap.  With such a long season, individual games tend to lose their weightiness and importance.  Think about it.  One single regular season NFL game is the equivalent of 10 MLB games.  Just an observation.

Now let’s address scheduling…. Alright, here comes the numbers shit.  If you’re not into the wonky stuff, just skip the next few paragraphs.  Rest assured, the new schedule might not be perfect.  But you can easily calibrate it.  With a little tweek here.  Geek there.

It's imperative to reduce the entrenched 19 games against the same division opponent.  Did I say imperative?  I meant critical.  This is a Code Red.   19 x 4 = 76.  In a 162 game season, that’s nearly half the games played in your own division.  I call this going overboard.  As in excessive.  As in walking the plank.  As in Pirates vs. Cardinals, Pirates vs. Brewers, Pirates vs. Reds. ETC.  Yeah, trust me, I get it.  I get the rivalry aspect and all.  But it eventually grows a stale.  As in boring.  Particularly when the small market, out of contention teams, are playing meaningless games in front of empty crowds in late September.  Nineteen games is too much.  Twelve divisional games is plenty.  12 X 4 = 48.  Change it to 6 home / 6 away.  Whew!  Much better.

So what about the other 10 league games?  Let’s go 6 X 10 = 60.  3 home / 3 away.  Same as it currently exists.  Simple enough.  Done.  Now we’re up to 108 games.  Leaving us with 54 games and 15 teams.  But whoa, that number ain’t perfectly divisible!  Yeah, no shit.  Here’s what you do.  Knock off, eradicate, or kill if you will, a grand total of 9 games.  Trust me on this one.  It’s long overdue.  Just move the season openers from late March to early April.  Even better, end the regular season in mid-September as opposed to late September.  Either works.  Personally, I prefer the latter.

With the 162 game season being cut to 153 games, it leaves 45 games in play.  Each MLB team would play all 15 teams in the opposing conference — a 3 game series, home OR away, alternating every year.  Just rotate.  The same concept used by the NFL.

If you can’t fathom the concept of eliminating 9 precious games from the regular season, there exists an even better option.  Balance out the schedule with an emphasis on inter-league weeknight stands - Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  They already do it to some extent.  Fans want to see the superstars.  The ones they never get to see.  What’s the point of signing a player to a  $100 million contract, if half of Major League Baseball never gets to see him play ball?  Pushing the inter-league Tuesday and Wednesday night games is a logical way to increase ballpark attendance on nights with low attendance. You’d think a proposition this evident would have been addressed by now.  Not quite.

With the introduction of inter-league play in 1997, MLB ended the long-standing tradition of separating the AL and NL (until the World Series of course).  Fans have overwhelmingly viewed this as a positive development.  As it gives them an opportunity to check out the other teams.  And since MLB has already opened up that can of worms, why not take it a step further?  Especially in the days of massive free agency $100+ million contracts (Cabrera, Trout, Pujols, etc.).  The best way to spark enthusiasm and renew interest… is to offer a greater number of fans the opportunity to see the current crop of superstars.  You know, the ones in the opposing conference?  Duh?!  I cannot stress this point enough.  It strikes me as absurdly obvious.  

With 30 teams, MLB is currently big enough.  But if you absolutely must add an expansion team, make sure to maintain the equilibrium.  Add two teams at the same time, not just one.  Keep it balanced.  Though trust me, thirty teams is more than sufficient.


The most significant realignment issue is the argument over a single word.  Tradition.  One could easily write a book about the tradition angle.  I’m just not willing to go down that road.  Although I will make a single statement.

In the last 50 years, 12 of the current 30 franchises in baseball have switched divisions.  And two of them switched leagues while they were doing it.  So I don’t really buy into this whole “how dare you upset the apple cart” theory.   

A more realistic problem involves the issue of time zones.  Keep in mind, MLB already has problems with the existing time zone dilemma.  There’s really no way to make everything perfectly compatible.  As long as the West Coast supports 6 teams, 5 of them in California alone, there’s not much you can do about the late games (starting at 10pm and hopefully ending by 1am).  But again, let’s be honest.  This problem has existed since the Dodgers left Brooklyn back in 1957.  Now you could have one division represent the entire state of California (which I kinda like).  The "yearly battle for California” could be an interesting sideshow.  However, it’s a direct conflict as Oakland is NOT a big market team.  If you start making arbitrary exceptions, the entire concept gets marginalized.  Still, I’d be amenable to exploring the idea.  Just switch Oakland with Arizona.  I wouldn’t completely rule it out.  Just sayin’.

Here are the other time zone realignment discrepancies.


The Washington Nationals (Eastern time) in the AL Central along with the Chicago and Texas teams (Central time).  They’re separated by one hour.  But hey, if there’s one city that should be able to cope with the hour disparity, it’s gotta be the residents of D.C.  Hardly strangers to the airlines.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are in the AL West with all the California teams.  But Arizona plays by their own rules when it comes to daylight savings time.  They are the “anti-time zone” team which makes them indifferent… and to some extent, irrelevant.  Regardless, it’s only a 5 hour drive from Phoenix to Los Angeles.  Not a huge deal. 

The NL Central teams would be divided between the Eastern and Central time zones.  That’s consistent with the current alignment.  A one hour discrepancy that can't be reconciled.  Get over it.

The only significant time zone issue is with the NL West.  You’d have both Missouri teams occasionally playing on the West Coast.  But you currently have the Texas teams playing on the West Coast.  So it's basically a wash.  Once again, just like Glenn Frey complains in that incredibly irritating ditty… get over it, get over it.  The video was removed from youtube for copyright violations, so here's the vastly superior “Smuggler’s Blues.”

Keep in mind, plenty of time zone issues already exist with the current AL/NL format.  The last time I checked, the city of Cleveland is located in the Eastern time zone.  Minneapolis and Kansas City are not.  Pittsburgh plays plenty of games in Milwaukee and Illinois.  The Astros and Rangers routinely travel to California.  And so on and so forth.  Truth be told, the time zone discrepancies are nearly  identical.  Just the same, the advantages easily outweigh the disadvantages.  Specifically the prospect of showcasing fresh new rivalries.

When making the final determination of whether a team qualifies as big or small market, I think it’s best to focus on the population of the city.  But if necessary, the formula could also take into account tv ratings, attendance, merchandise revenue, etc.  Still, the major criteria must reflect city population.  Put it to an ownership vote every 20 years or so.  In the unlikely event a tiebreaker is needed, let the commish cast the deciding vote.  After all, Rob Manfred is surely capable of making the big decisions.  The ones that take guts.

This new configuration does beg the question, what if a multi-billionaire, like say a Mark Cuban, made Bob Nutting an offer he couldn’t refuse?  And purchased a small market team?  And overloaded it with expensive talent, thereby giving them an unfair advantage?  Well, so what!  You’re basically right back where you started.  Though I’ll tell you one thing.  It would definitely solve the problem of declining small market attendance.  As it would put more butts in the seats.  Particularly when the fans can say, without any doubt whatsoever, our owner is truly committed to winning. 

And it’s not just Pittsburgh.  Hey, if some mega-billionaire wants to buy the Cincinnati Reds, I say more power to them.  Enjoy your plate of Skyline Chili.  Consisting of spaghetti noodles with a heaping dollop of shredded cheddar.

What about spring training and the accompanying cacti and grapefruits in late February and March?  I’d say keep every team where they are.  Leave well enough alone.  It’s all inherently based on geography anyway.

The final con is actually a pro — Wouldn’t the big market team, with it’s higher priced talent, always be favored and usually win the World Series?  Yeah, perhaps.  But I don’t necessarily agree with that premise.  Because when a baseball team gets that fever, that spark, momentum, whatever… things have a way of playing themselves out in unanticipated ways.  Either way, there would be a greater desire to watch the final series and find out if the small market team can pull off the upset.  In a way, it even surpasses rooting for your favorite team.  Because it’s called rooting for the underdog.  And that’s a tradition which transcends all other traditions.

Once again, here’s a look at the new leagues.
Big Market American League and Small Market National League.  Enjoy!

It's time to shake it up.  Discuss.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love it!
How do you come up with these ideas?
Tradition is overrated...or so I've heard.