Baseball

Spring training used to be a time of relief and happiness. Even those of us stuck up in the north, under mud and snow (though not for much longer. Thank you Global Warming!) would gleefully check sports sites and Twitter just for a glimpse of the sunshine and players taking batting practice in it. There would be 743 stories per day about someone being in the best shape of his life (this will be roughly 10 less than the number about Seabrook come September. Prepare now). Soon games will be on TV, and you would have tuned in merely to watch the warmth. You’ll probably soon start swearing at your friends’ photos on FB from Arizona or Florida at some ballpark. This is a Sarah Spain Special (luv u, Sarah. It’s ok, we’re honestly friends. No, seriously, we are!).

These days however, the only thing coming out of every spring training site is a bunch of vitriol, angst, frustration, and veiled threats directed at one team, the Astros, or one man, Rob Manfred.

I want to join in on calling Manfred a total dope. But the thing is, the commissioner of just about every sport is supposed to be a dope. Baseball killed having a real commissioner when they knifed Fay Vincent in the back and installed one of their own as commish. Really, ever since then, the job of a commissioner has been to maximize the owners’ profits and nothing else. And that pretty much has gone from every sport. Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue (arguably) were actual commissioners. They gave way to the Ginger Doofus. David Stern to Adam Silver has been about as close to a clean transition as you can get, and both Silver and Stern have their issues. The NHL has always been run by an idiot, because it’s formed by idiots.

So Manfred is essentially unequipped to deal with this. His job is TV and internet deals and squeezing players for money. Any rule changes we’ve seen is only to cater to TV, or at least it is in their own mind. He doesn’t have any idea how to run the actual game, and whatever he handed down to the Astros is only meant to have the appearance of doing something. He doesn’t have any idea, because it’s not in the job description anymore.

Which sucks, and perhaps this will cause the players to try and change the Commissioner’s job or role in the next CBA. But I doubt it.

And I think we all get it It does feel light that the only people to really pay for this were a manager or the GM. Perhaps in a just world, world class nincompoop Jim Crane would have to give up the team even for just his inattentiveness. But as we discussed when this came down, what are the logistics of suspending the players? You could justify suspending every single one on that 2017 team, either for participating or not speaking up. Look at what’s happening to Man City with UEFA right now (suck it, Hess). But then would the Astros have to play a couple weeks, a month, half a season, the whole thing with their AAA team? Formulate a team from what’s left on the free agent scrapheap? Maybe these are questions they should have had to answer and not have the commissioner do it for them, but here we are.

As far as stripping them of the title or give the rings back…does that really matter? Are the Dodgers going to have a parade now then? Do they get rings? Would they really want them? Do they feel like they “won” now? It feels good to say in the moment, but it doesn’t really do anything. I still remember the Fab Five, perhaps my favorite basketball team of all-time (only other contender were the Glove-Reign Man Era Sonics), going to the Final Four, even if the history books say they didn’t.

Still, it’s hard to believe that every player is blindsided by this. There’s footage of a couple pitchers in 2017 looking quizzically or worse at the Houston dugout in 2017 when they heard the song of the garbage can. Players move on, players talk. Where was the outrage then? Feels like this is all making up for something now.

Maybe it’s the hinting at the buzzers that’s really pissing players off, because that’s perceived as way over the line. As I wrote back when this broke, I don’t think the Astros themselves think this is a huge deal. You can steal signs from second base. You can from the dugout if the catcher drops them too low. You can study a pitcher tipping his pitches. You can see where just stealing them from the centerfield camera would be considered not that far from those, at least by some players. Although if a pitcher catches you stealing signs from second base, your friend at the plate is likely to end up with a Rawlings in his spine. So maybe it’s more of a no-no than I think.

Maybe it’s just because it’s the Astros, whom everyone hated before this anyway. And they are the hilt of new baseball thinking, that they’re the smartest guys in the room and they know better than you. It’s why they can cut huge numbers of staff and scouts because they have a “system” that you can’t conceive of. It’s why they can taunt female reporters about Roberto Osuna because they’re not bogged down by “ethics” or “morals” and happily so.

This is what happens when the business-bred hedge fund bros that have taken over MLB front offices over the past couple decades realize their true form. Because there’s no out of bounds where they come from. Mostly because those in charge are the same as they are and are only going to help them, which is what Rob Manfred is, isn’t he? There are no consequences, and they have too much money to face them anyway. Everything is fair as long as you win.

Perhaps this is where the wave breaks and rolls back. I hope it is, because baseball seems pretty sour these days. I don’t know how much more sour it can get before even more people stop caring, including those like me who used to really care. Baseball may never admit it due to the amount of money still in the game, but it would not be so hard for it to go the way of horse racing and boxing as sports of yore. It should be a time of boom, given the drop in participation in football and those athletes needing to go somewhere. But baseball is unmatched in fucking that up royally.

Baseball

I, much like you, made that sound that comes when you surprisingly belch up some vomit and have to swallow it back down when I saw the proposal for a new playoff system in MLB. It’s been obvious for a while that Rob Manfred doesn’t even like baseball, or if he does he doesn’t have any clue on how to make it better and more attractive to a new generation. So we’ll just turn it into The Bachelor or something? Who fucking knows. The more I think about it the more baseball is headed the way of horse racing, and it’ll be me and a bunch of altacockers watching it praying we can make it back to the car before shitting ourselves before too long.

When stuff like this comes out, and it’s been this way for longer than I’d care to think about, we all just dismiss it as “cash grab.” Because we know that’s Manfred’s job, to make the owners more and more money. And more playoff games mean more ratings for TV networks which means better ad rates and you know how the whole cycle goes. I mean, at some point there are so many playoff games they cease to be unique anymore and maybe ratings would flatten out but I guess we’re a long way off from that.

I don’t know if I’m getting my anarchist clothing on and preparing my bow but it does feel like the more we dismiss and acquiesce the more the things we love are altered or mutated beyond recognition and we’re the only ones who suffer. And yet it feels like there’s little we can do other than stop watching and/or caring, and again, we’re the only ones who get punished in that scenario. The owners and Manfred are unlikely to notice we’re gone. I doubt there will be a baseball revolution/uprising anytime soon. If there is, I have a whole list of people I’d sentence to death by exile.

Playoff expansion is all about keeping more fans of more teams interested throughout a regular season that feels too long at times. It’s here that many have pointed out you wouldn’t have so many teams drawing flies and the generally lost and bewildered only if you didn’t have so many bottoming out in a “rebuild,” most of which never actually top out either. Perhaps the introduction of a salary floor not all that far from the luxury tax would keep more teams competitive for the playoff spots you already have cut out? I guess I shouldn’t sit on a hot stove waiting for that to happen, though it feels like that should be one of the first bullet points from the MLBPA in new CBA negotiations. I guess the best I can hope for there is that Tony Clark can spell “salary floor.”

None of this fixes what’s really wrong with baseball, and even the playoff system. And I don’t know that there’s a solution to any of it. From where I sit, here are the problems:

  1. Wildcards are being competed for by teams with wildly different schedules, which isn’t fair.
  2. Baseball doesn’t really lend itself greatly to playoffs?

I’ll deal with the first and see if I’m even capable of dealing with the second later. Right now, a system that would be as near as perfect as you could get would just be the three division winners. Because they would really only be competing against teams playing the same schedule, and hence we get a fair idea of who was the “best” out of that. There’s no sliding records or whatever. Everyone in the Central played everyone else in the Central 19 times, and everyone else in the NL six or seven. Sure, there’s a little variance with these “natural interleague rivals” but I’m not going to kick a fuss over one or two games.

But even that wouldn’t completely work, if you were to give a bye to the team with the best record. Because they’ll have achieved that record playing a wildly different schedule than the other two teams, so we don’t have any idea how they compare really. And the six or seven games they had against each other wouldn’t be enough of a sample.

And of course, that wouldn’t be enough playoff teams to suit everyone. We’re not going back to four divisions and only the winners move on to the postseason, even if that makes the most sense.

I would say that expansion to 32 teams, which also seems inevitable somewhere around here, would allow for the opportunity for either eight divisions of four with only the winners moving on, or the truly revolutionary and close-to-my-heart tiered leagues of 16 teams with promotion and relegation. Fuck, in a vacuum, cutting the minor leagues loose and making them just lower league baseball could even add to this, where Des Moines and Charlotte could actually play their way into MLB II or whatever and compete with Pittsburgh and Detroit or whatever. But that’s about as galaxy-brained as it gets. Even though the Premier League’s popularity continues to grow and no one here is suggesting they change their ways.

But MLB won’t go for the eight-division look because someone will complain about the likelihood of one or two divisions being so much weaker than the others. This is what happened in the NHL. You’ll recall the current format was just supposed to be four divisions with no conferences, and four teams from each would make the playoff and then the four winners from there would be re-seeded for the semifinals. It sounded great, kept teams competing for things while playing the same schedule, and would have been at least unique. It was the players who balked, with the above reasoning. Which gave us this dumbass wildcard system.

What promotion/relegation fans are really trying to get at is keeping teams at every point in the standings competing for something. And I guess this is what this proposed MLB system takes a swipe at. Teams at the top are haggling over the bye, teams in the middle trying to get in. It doesn’t do anything for the bottom, which is the real problem, but I’ll let go of that dream. Right now, once the Dodgers get 10 games up on the Padres by what, May 1st, there really isn’t much for them to play for. Sure, the winner of the coin flip, which went excellently for them last year. But getting to miss a whole round probably has more advantage.

This always wades back into the meaning of the regular season, but that gets harder to define. When we had only four playoff teams, what did the regular season mean to teams in third through seventh? For every Braves-Giants ’92 epic, there were probably five pennant races that never actually developed as some 94-win team won by eight games and everyone knew it was over somewhere in August. Is that better? Maybe, I’m not sure either way.

If you’re like me and trying to figure out how to get the soccer model into American sports, essentially you need to keep in mind that along with avoiding relegation there’s “mid-card belts.” Like Champions League or Europa League places. As well as separate cup competitions. American sports simply don’t have these. Which is something the NBA is taking a look at, but the cup competitions don’t really work without the lower league teams competing. Now, let college teams and D-League teams take their shot and we might have something. Either way, it’s hard to juice the middle of the standings here. This is their attempt, as wrong as it may feel.

And really, we know that as dramatic as they can be, playoffs in baseball are weird. It’s kind of a different game than what we see in the regular season. Some sports lend themselves to that kind of thing or feel. I would say that hockey and basketball, but baseball and soccer don’t. It’s just the nature of the games. There’s no getting rid of them of course, but it’s not really the best way to determine a champion.

Baseball is all about how you negotiate so many damn games over six months and the accumulation of wins over that stretch. You can’t even use the same lineup every time, as you have to change pitchers. And then all of the sudden we flip a switch and one game matters over all, just over 0.5% of what you just played. It’s kind of injected drama and meaning.

Perhaps actual swift marketing men who loved the game could find a way to make the regular season more meaningful to people. Perhaps every sport could do more to make winning the regular season championship, the best test we have as flawed as it is, something to be celebrated. To separate it from the playoff champion. That’s beyond me, but until we do that, I don’t think anything is going to work perfectly.

This proposed system still sucks, though.