Taking the Field in Daylight, Not Dreams

The crack of the bat. The smell of freshly cut grass. The warmth of the sun set against a blue sky. These are just some of the elements that make baseball one of the greatest sporting events to attend. Baseball is a sport designed to be played outdoors. While domed stadiums make a certain amount of sense in the hot Arizona desert or for cold Milwaukee springs, the Texas Rangers play in the heat while the Minnesota Twins play, occasionally, in the snow. As children, we grow up playing baseball until the sun goes down. Whether we are playing or watching, baseball is a game tailor-made for lazy Saturday afternoons. While Saturday falls once a week, Major League Baseball gets the chance to showcase baseball on three days during the “summer.”

Three days of each baseball season are holidays for many Americans: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. These are holidays without the traditional family commitments. Rather they are days of relaxation designed around barbecues, fireworks, going to the beach, or just lounging around the backyard with a radio.

The first rule of these days: every team should play. Now that the leagues have been evened and interleague play is a season-long event, there should be sixteen games on each of the three holidays. MLB is close: all thirty teams will be in action on Memorial Day but two will sit out on each of the next two holidays. The second rule: play games during the day.

Over the past five seasons, including the balance of 2013, Labor Day has been the most consistent holiday for day baseball (defined for the purposes of this article as games starting before the end of the 4pm hour on the East Coast), with Memorial Day and the Fourth of July demonstrating a lack of emphasis on this aspect of scheduling. This is strange when considering Bud Selig’s work during his tenure as Commissioner. Whether you agree or disagree with his moves, Selig has spent just over two decades attempting to improve the fan experience. Interleague play, the World Baseball Classic, Home Run Derby captains, and making the All-Star Game “count” are all measures aimed squarely at the fans.

Although the WBC is aimed at cultivating baseball on a global scale, the finals are still played in the United States, and the atmosphere, set just before March Madness, is that of a playoff tournament. The WBC is trying to be the kind of baseball seen in the postseason: games are happening all the time and teams are being eliminated in epic matchups (or so they hope).

Part of the magic during the WBC, NCAA tournament, and the MLB postseason lies in the quantity of games being played. Only during Opening Day, and to a lesser extent, the rest of that week, does baseball feature a large number of day games allowing workers, students, and fans of all ages the opportunity to follow along with games staggered throughout the day starting at noon and ending past midnight on the East Coast.

People like to be immersed in their sports. As baseball fans this is hard to keep in mind at times because the season is so long. However, most games on any particular day start between 7pm and 10pm Eastern time. The chaos is confined. This is not an indictment of prime time baseball. Both for economics and availability this schedule makes sense during the week – but on the weekend, and even moreso, holidays, the chaos and excitement should be overflowing.

This is a plan executed every Sunday by the NFL. A few games start every couple hours leading up to a primetime game on Sunday night and then the showcase that is Monday Night Football. This strategy brings in football fans and fantasy players, encourages cable packages to ensure access to every game, and if that isn’t enough, NFL RedZone is a non-stop highlight reel. And that is every Sunday from September to January.

MLB could start with three days. Three days where fans are ready to relax and have fun, following an endless stream of baseball.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

This Time Is Counts: The All-Star Game, the World Series, and You

The 2002 All-Star Game was a baseball game like no other: it ended in a tie after both teams ran out of pitchers in the 11th inning. To spice things up, including viewership, Bud Selig announced a new twist in 2003: the winner of the All-Star Game would determine which leave received home-field advantage during the World Series.

Over on Baseball Nation Wendy Thurm took a look at the controversy and history of the midsummer classic and boils down the options concerning the semi-exhabiition game and the postseason.

Her findings reveal that while determining home-field advantage through an unofficial game seems less fair than simply alternating between leagues, as was the previous tradition, in actuality, “This time it counts” is a bit more equitable.

It turns out that in seven of the nine seasons, the team with the better regular-season record had home-field advantage in the World Series.

Alright you might say, but what about a longer sample of World Series contests? Well, Wendy Thurm had that data too:

Contrast that with the 33 World Series held in the expansion era, prior to 2003 (1969-2002). In seventeen of those Series, the team with the better regular-season record held home-field advantage. But in sixteen Series, the team with the worse regular-season record did.

In those sixteen World Series, the team with home-field advantage won the Series twelve times. Twelve out of sixteen. Seventy-five percent. Even though those teams had a worse record during the regular season.

Based on those numbers, alternating home-field advantage between the leagues seems a lot less fair than tying it to the outcome of the All-Star Game.

At this point if you have a beef with the All-Star Game “counting” the evidence isn’t going to help you out a heck of a lot. But this issue remains a divisive topic among fans despite nearly a decade of history behind it.

The underlying issue: the Designated Hitter. While every team usually gets a boost playing at home, American League teams have a disadvantage when they head on the road to National League parks. Every time an AL team plays in an NL park the DH is taken away and AL pitchers are forced to hit. No one enjoys this (well, this is unfair, some people do enjoy this, including a few pitchers. Let’s say no one enjoys watching this most of the time). And many big league teams are shelling out nearly $100 million dollars (or more) for a team which, in the biggest games, doesn’t get to play as it was intended.

The idea of a neutral site for the World Series has been floated in the past. As has the transition to a Super Bowl-style pre-decided, rotating, location. This causes some issues as well. Given the fear of cold weather by Major League Baseball, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland etc. would never see another World Series game.

When the Series is held in a National League park, would the DH apply if the AL won the All-Star Game? Would the series simply rotate between AL and NL parks, playing by the rules of that league for the entire series?

The elephant in the room is the designated hitter itself. While home field is an advantage, both the World Series and Interleague play face problems of fairness because American League pitchers are forced to hit when playing in National League parks and National League teams get to have an extra hitter when they visit the Junior league. Essentially tipping the scales in the favor of the NL team each way.

It’s difficult for me to say, but I think the DH should be adopted by the NL. I like that baseball’s leagues have a real difference between them. I enjoy small ball from time to time just as a change of pace. But I would never want the Red Sox, the team I grew up with, to shift to the National League and abandon the DH.

The Astros are moving into the AL West in 2013. The tougher league and to a division with two powerhouses in the Angels and Rangers. It may take a while for Houston to become competitive again, but when they are, with nine real hitters in their lineup, the AL Astros will always be more talented than the same roster in the NL with a pitcher replacing their DH.