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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Uninspiring '09 Season Can't End Soon Enough (Part II)

Allan Simpson        

Uninspiring '09 Season Can't End Soon Enough (Part I)


Baseball has had its share of issues in 2009, for sure, and some may compromise the future well-being of the game if left unattended.

But baseball still has tremendous wide-spread appeal and staying power, and none of this commentary is meant to suggest, or even imply, that the game of hockey is in a healthier overall state than baseball. It’s not, though that point could certainly be argued north of the border, and maybe even in a few traditional U.S. hockey hotbeds.

We’ve drawn hockey into this conversation because there are definite parallels between the two sports—beyond fielding the same number of teams (30), and Canada celebrating its last World Series and Stanley Cup champions in the same year (1993). We feel it’s relevant to explore some of these parallels, particularly to the extent that they might apply to an uninspiring 2009 baseball season.

In fact, we implore Major League Baseball to take a step back and possibly even lift a page from the National Hockey League on ways to consider conducting certain aspects of its business. Who knows, MLB could even use hockey’s lead to help cure some of the game’s ills that bubbled to the surface this season.

Obviously, the NHL has had its own share of issues in recent years, notably the lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. But it has also taken a lot of progressive steps to get its house in order since emerging from the lockout, and the changes have generally been well received by the league’s small, but intensely loyal fan base. Baseball should take note.

The most significant step in the NHL’s makeover is a salary cap. It has not only put a clamp on the potential for runaway payrolls by big-market teams like the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs, but roughly leveled the competitive playing field for all. As the 2009-10 NHL season opens tonight, there isn’t a team among the 30 that doesn’t feel it has at least a realistic chance to be very competitive.

The cap is tied to overall “hockey-related” revenues, with player salaries paid out as a fixed percentage (about 56 percent this season) of those revenues. And not only is there a ceiling on team payrolls ($56.7 million this season), but a floor as well ($40.7 million this season), requiring teams to spend to a minimum level. As the NHL prospers, so do its players, and the salary cap has risen nearly 50 percent from the initial 2005-06 cap season, when the cap was about $39 million per team. Additionally, no one player can earn more than 20 percent of his team’s payroll.

So unlike baseball, where the Yankees’ payroll was again upwards of $200 million this season, and the Marlins didn’t even meet the NHL’s floor amount, the most-challenged hockey teams know they will at least have a fair chance to compete with the Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, the Stanley Cup finalists the last two years.

Salary caps also exist in the NFL and NBA, making baseball the only major team sport in North America without a systematic mechanism to control salaries. In all its wisdom, baseball’s Players Association has always vociferously resisted a collectively-bargained cap, even if the result of reigning in the free-spending Yankees would largely be offset by requiring bottom feeders like the Marlins or Pirates to spend considerably more.

And aren’t Pirates players part of the Association? Aren’t there Pirates players who would like a fairer chance to be part of a more-competitive team after 17 straight losing seasons? Wouldn’t the combination of a salary cap and floor give the Pirates a better chance to compete?

It might still be a very hard sell to get the Players Association to at least buy into the notion of a cap, given the mite of baseball’s union over 30-plus years, and its hard-line stance on any issues related to controlling salaries. But union hard-liners Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr won’t be representing the players in the next set of negotiations, two years hence, and there are indications that new leadership might be a little more moderate, if not totally accommodating in such issues.

From a management standpoint, why wouldn’t small-market/small-revenue teams like the Pirates and Royals, who have had a difficult time competing in today’s increasingly-tough baseball environment, not push hard for a cap—and settle for nothing less? It may be the only way that they have a realistic chance to field a team that can be at least competitive, year-in and year-out, down the road. Fans of the Royals and Pirates are owed that.

Then there’s the issue of post-season play.

The NHL has always provided for a majority of its teams to participate in post-season play, leaving it open to criticism for compromising the integrity of its regular season. Currently 16 of the 30 qualify.

But the realization has set in that the NHL might have had it right all along, and the time might indeed be ripe for baseball, which until 1969 allowed just two teams to participate in post-season play, to look at an expanded playoff format from its current eight.

Obviously, this would be tantamount to blasphemy in the eyes of baseball purists. But with more and more of baseball’s smaller-revenue clubs struggling to compete, with the playoffs out of reach this year for many, for all practical purposes, before the 2009 season even started, an expanded playoff would give more teams a greater reason to play in September—even August—while sustaining fan interest in those months. It would also give them a fairer shake at experiencing post-season glory—with a possible World Series title, however remote, as an additional lure.

It’s not like baseball is trying to protect the sanctity of the regular league any longer, not when the Marlins can win two World Series without ever having finished in first place. There’s nothing sacred any more in baseball about advancing to post-season play only by the honorable way, so why not just open the baseball playoffs to more teams? Maybe not 16, but more than the current eight. Just make it tougher to win the big prize for those teams that qualify for post-season play through the back door—but at least give them a chance. The more, the better.

It’s safe to say that my NHL team of choice, the Carolina Hurricanes, would never have won the Stanley Cup in 2006, coming out of the lockout, without a salary cap in place, or even sniffed the Stanley Cup playoffs this past season had baseball’s restricted, eight-team post-season format been in place.

But with 16 playoff berths up for grabs in the NHL, Carolina went on an exciting, pseudo-playoff chase for the better part of three months, just to squeeze into the playoffs. Almost every game the Hurricanes played over the second half of the 2008-09 regular season was riveting and meaningful.

Once in the playoffs, the Hurricanes played in and won two of the most remarkable playoff series in NHL history—both settled in Game Seven, in dramatic, last-second fashion. You don’t think that electrified a small, non-traditional hockey market with a rapidly-growing fan base? You bet it did.

And the same sense of excitement could happen in baseball, too, if teams like Atlanta, Florida, Minnesota, San Francisco, Seattle and Texas were intricately involved in a September playoff chase this year, with meaningful games on the line every night, and the potential to play for much greater stakes in October. All those teams had winning records this season, but will be on the outside looking in.

It’s not like we’re necessarily advocating for a much longer baseball season than already exists. Goodness knows, the 2009 season is already long enough, and guaranteed of lasting into November, as it is. But a revamped playoff, even with additional teams, could be workable, and there are ways that everything could even be wrapped up much sooner than this season is already assured of lasting.

Admittedly, the scenario that follows is a little unconventional and would be met by its share of detractors, but it at least addresses a number of baseball’s current problems—both regular season and post-season. Here goes.

For starters, let’s lop off eight games (or effectively a week) from the regular-season schedule, and return to the old 154-game format. Any loss in revenue to clubs, forced to give up four home games, could be made up, at least in part, by playing more playoff games overall.

Not only would the regular season end in September, with days to spare, under such a proposal, but we would then take the next obvious step of eliminating most, if not all, of the maddening and unnecessary breaks (both between games and between series) that exist under the current playoff format. The added benefit of a condensed schedule is that it would force teams in the post-season to play a series that more closely assimilates conditions that are in effect in the regular season. It would almost certainly mandate teams to employ the same five-man rotations in the playoffs that they utilized in the regular season that got them into the playoffs in the first place.

Much as it is mind-boggling why Major League Baseball continues to allow teams to play with more than 25-man rosters in September, it’s equally puzzling why it allows the post-season to be spread out to such a degree that a team can win a playoff series by utilizing just a three-man rotation.

Our improvised playoff format also calls for seven teams in each league. That’s right, seven, or a total of 14 between the two leagues.

With the current three-division alignment, you’d have three first-place teams and four wild cards qualify. The first-place teams would be properly rewarded with a first-round bye (equating to either two or three off days after the end of the regular season), while the four wild cards would square off in a mini, play-in tournament—Wild Card No. 1 vs. No. 4 in one sudden-death game, Wild Card No. 2 vs. No. 3 in the other, with the winners meeting in another sudden-death game—to determine a fourth team to join the three division winners in the second round.

The play-in series in each league, involving the eight wild-card teams, would start two days after the regular season concludes, and wrap up a day later. The two surviving clubs would then be thrust right into second-round play, with no rest for the weary. It might put some of these clubs at an obvious disadvantage, but that’s the price they pay for being wild cards. They still get a shot, however slim, at playing for all the marbles—and that’s the key.

In each league, the play-in or wild-card survivor would meet the team with the best regular-season record in a best-of-seven, second-round series, while the other two division winners would square off in another best-of-7 series.

The upside of this 14-team proposal is that the second round of playoffs would involve eight teams (after six have been eliminated) and would start two or three days after the conclusion of the regular season—just as the playoff format exists now. But such a format would have other advantages, and would address issues that today’s playoff structure doesn’t adequately address.

Not only would more teams be included in the playoffs under such a radical plan, sustaining interest through the often-dead days of September and maybe even the entire second half, but it would give the team with the best regular-season record in each league a decided advantage—an obvious reward for posting the best record that doesn’t necessarily exist in today’s structure.

It would also more adequately reward all those teams that finished in first place in their divisions over the long haul, and deserve to play in nothing less than a full and fair best-of-seven series in post-season play.

Wild-card teams would still have a chance to reach the World Series, but that chance would be lessened considerably than the present situation, which has seen far too many wild-card teams compete in and even win the World Series—producing an illegitimate champion, of sorts. Most of all, we’d be far less concerned about the crapshoot nature of a short playoff series, especially a one-game series, when they would now involve only wild-card teams that would be eliminating each other.

While we’re on a playoff roll, let’s address another significant post-season problem area: the often ridiculously-late starting times of games. It’s a troubling enough thought that a majority of World Series games could be played in November this year, possibly even in the Northeast, without even contemplating the added likelihood that some games could drag on beyond midnight because they start so late, and often take endlessly long to play. What’s this, baseball on skates?

The NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs last at least twice as long as baseball’s current post-season and don’t typically end until at mid-June, but it’s a little more comfortable watching hockey indoors, when it’s 80 degrees outside, than it is baseball when it’s a shivering 30 degrees.

Doesn’t baseball hold a place of enough importance in our society where it can dictate to TV networks when its own games will start, not the other way around? It just smells of one more way that baseball has sold out to TV, where it will compromise the integrity of its showcase event for a few extra bucks. And what ever happened to that lost art of playing a daytime World Series game?

At the very least, our revamped playoff proposal would ensure that no World Series game would ever be played in November, much less in late October—even with a bizarre playoff plan that would start with nearly twice as many teams.

The draft is yet another area where baseball could learn some very valuable lessons from the NHL, particularly with all that transpired this year.

Both sports have a slotting system designed to keep bonus payments from getting out of hand. But while the NHL’s slotting procedure is collectively bargained and enforceable, baseball’s is not.

When baseball’s signing deadline approaches, and push comes to shove, teams invariably have let all sense of restraint and responsibility fly out the window, and pay little or no heed to MLB’s recommended slot amounts, undermining the entire draft premise of signing talent cheaply and distributing talent fairly.

Meanwhile, hockey’s entire draft process went by smoothly and quietly. NHL teams drafted players with talent as a primary consideration, and the baseball buzz-word ‘signability’ wasn’t even part of the hockey lexicon because of the NHL’s enforceable cap on bonuses to entry-level players. Moreover, with no rigid signing deadline, NHL teams either signed their players to pre-determined contract amounts, or allowed—and even encouraged—their draft picks to return to college or junior hockey clubs for more seasoning.

Unlike baseball, NHL teams retain the rights to the players they draft for up to four years, and almost never engage in any of the nasty rhetoric that occasionally involves negotiations with entry-level talent in baseball.

There are numerous other appealing aspects of the hockey draft that would be applicable to baseball, such as the inclusion of international players and the trading of draft picks—not to mention the NHL’s elaborate draft-day selection procedure and ceremony that properly and graciously welcomes its future stars into the game, unlike baseball’s continuing amateurish and clumsy attempts to promote its own draft.

We need to look no further than the two drafts this year—both staged in June, less than three weeks apart—to highlight some of the obvious differences between baseball and hockey, in style and approach.

Both sports, coincidentally, had two of the most intriguing domestic prospects to come along in years, and they were appropriately selected No. 1 overall in their respective drafts—John Tavares by the New York Islanders, Stephen Strasburg by the Washington Nationals.

Yet while Tavares was introduced as the No. 1 pick in his draft and welcomed by thousands—both in an elaborate draft-day ceremony in Montreal, and at a boisterous, upbeat draft party on Long Island, that coincided with his selection—Strasburg (and every other draft pick, except one local player) was noticeably absent from Major League Baseball’s weak, embarrassing attempt to televise its draft from its new in-house TV studios in New Jersey.

With the cap on signing bonuses that exists in hockey, Tavares went on to sign the standard maximum three-year, entry-level contract with the Islanders quickly and quietly, with no acrimony, and will be in New York’s lineup to start the upcoming NHL season.

Strasburg, meanwhile, sat out the entire summer season as negotiations between his camp and the Washington Nationals went nowhere initially, amid reports that Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras, was asking for the moon. Things got a little testy in the days leading up to the Aug. 17 deadline, before Strasburg finally agreed to a record-breaking deal with the Nationals just minutes before the signing deadline.

Strasburg was one of the few amateurs in the baseball draft’s 44-year history who was sufficiently talented to jump directly to the big leagues out of college. Such a scenario would have been a shining moment for a struggling Nationals franchise desperately in need of positive news—whether in June, when Strasburg was drafted, or August, when he signed. But a golden opportunity was lost because baseball’s arcane draft rules gave Strasburg an out.

Leveraging his draft status to the fullest was a lot more important to Strasburg and his representatives than a chance to pitch in the big leagues as soon as possible, and all of us missed out on a story that would have been one of the best, and potentially most-fascinating in this otherwise uninspiring 2009 baseball season.

By the time Strasburg finally did sign, he hadn’t pitched in more than two months, and any efforts for the struggling Nationals to capitalize on the debut of their prized young pitching prospect, or even recoup some of their record $15 million signing bonus, was gone.

The sad part of it all is that the Nationals knew for more than a year that Strasburg would be their man, and yet they not only couldn’t sign him when they drafted him, but barely signed him at the deadline some 10 weeks later.

Beyond Tavares and Strasburg, the next most-visible hockey and baseball talents available for the taking this year were two international players of some significant renown: Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman and lefthander Aroldis Chapman, a Cuban defector. Their cases are noted because they serve to point out additional gaps between baseball and hockey, and the way young talent is pursued, and ultimately signed.

Because the NHL draft includes foreign players, Hedman was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning with the No. 2 pick, right behind Tavares, and he, predictably, agreed to terms for the slot amount for that pick, with little or no fanfare. Like Tavares, he will open the 2009-10 season in the NHL.

Meanwhile, Chapman still hasn’t signed and the circus-like atmosphere that will surround his impending signing has only just begun. As an international player, he is not subject to baseball’s draft, and the stakes for his services are expected to be so high that only those teams with very deep pockets will be in the bidding. Not those teams that could use his talent most.

The stakes for Chapman’s services could be so high, in fact, that it might well provide us with more fodder for yet another 2009 baseball story with a negative inference, making us all wonder, once again, what hit us this year.

Meanwhile, a very promising hockey season starts tonight. And in places like Pittsburgh and Toronto and Washington, and maybe even Chicago, who can’t wait for this painfully-long baseball season to end and eagerly await the beginning of another hockey season, there is some irony involved. For what we believe to be the first time ever this year, the NHL season actually starts before Major League Baseball’s regular season ends (Sunday).

Yet, as this inordinately long baseball season can’t seem to end soon enough, there is always hope that this post-season will be one for the ages—maybe a reincarnation of 1975, or 1986, and maybe even 2004—and bring us some high-stakes drama that baseball, and maybe only baseball, through all its twists and turns, for all its heartaches and disappointments, has the capacity to bring us—often when we least expect it.

Should that magic happen, we’ll almost certainly want to savor the moment, and maybe even wish this endlessly-long season would never end, after all.

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