The All-Star Home Run Derby was a stagnant event that suddenly turned into great drama – and great television – with a few small tweaks. It’s another lesson learned for baseball, which became far less of a stodgy sport under Commissioner Bud Selig thanks to the advent of major changes like wild cards, interleague play and home-field advantage in the World Series going to the winner of the All-Star Game.
But there’s plenty more about the Grand Old Game that new commish Rob Manfred can tinker with too, lots of fixes big and small that can make the game better. What was this corner thinking over the break about Manfred’s possible agenda items? Consider some of these ideas:
• Schedule: The current CBA expires on Dec. 1, 2016 and this is going to be one hot-button item during negotiations. The demands of television and interleague play are causing too many late-night trips, even cross-country ones. It would seem the time has come to roll back on the 162-game schedule, to either 158 or perhaps the 154 of the pre-expansion era prior to 1961.
Teams should be able to afford giving up just two or four low-attended dates in April or September. At the All-Star break, only the Giants, Cardinals and Red Sox were playing to more than an average of 87 percent of capacity (they were all at 96 percent or above). Those big revenue teams might crab, but player exhaustion is becoming a huge issue that Executive Director Tony Clark said in Cincinnati would be a front-burner topic. Giants manager Bruce Bochy was particularly vocal last month when his team played a Thursday night game in New York and then had to play a Friday night game at home. That’s terrible.
“It’s a huge economic issue,” Manfred admitted Tuesday during the commissioner’s annual All-Star meeting with the Baseball Writers Association of America. “If you were going to try to do something in that area, where you’re giving up revenue, you’ve got to figure out something that is offsetting in the other direction. And the one obvious possibility is that you’d make a change in terms on the playoff format.”
• Playoff format I: A shorter season could mean a best-of-three for the wild-card round. Selig was not in favor of the one-game showdowns we have now but grew to like them, albeit as a necessary evil because you can’t extend the postseason schedule any further. But with four or eight games off the regular season, it would be easy to do and still likely keep the World Series out of November.
• Playoff format II: You only need to look at the NL Central this year to see why Manfred & Co. should reinstate the rule that teams from the same division can’t play in the division series. The Cardinals and Pirates entered the weekend with two of the top three records in the game and destined to meet in a best-of-five because the wild-card game winner meets the team with the best record. There’s no way to have a Cards-Pirates NLCS unless the Nationals or Dodgers pass one of them and that’s a shame.
• The Tampa Bay situation: The Rays’ empty houses in Tropicana Field have become a blight on the game. They hit the break averaging just 14,730 fans per game, while Cleveland is the only other team even under 21,700. The fan base has clearly said they’re not going to the Trop, which is in St. Petersburg and a traffic disaster to get to for the area’s heavy Tampa-based population. The team’s deal runs through 2027 but there’s no way the game can wait that long. Especially with enthusiasm exploding in Montreal for a return by the Expos.
A year or maybe two in old Olympic Stadium, just like the Nationals did at RFK Stadium, and then a new downtown ballpark would be the plan for Montreal. And Les Expos would sure look good in the AL East instead of downtrodden Tampa Bay.
• The DH: I’m tired of the argument the National League style is the way baseball should be played. Pitchers nowadays don’t even hit in high school a lot of time. The Bartolo Colon freak show is enough of a reason to not make the DH uniform throughout the majors? Please. You would think the players’ union would adamantly push on this issue, given how it could extend some careers to have a DH in the NL as well. I can’t believe we’ve gone on this way for 42 years.
• Pete Rose: Manfred says he’s going to listen. Fair enough. Maybe he should reinstate Rose to at least be eligible for the Hall of Fame and take part in more events like he did in Cincinnati. But the fact is that Charlie Hustle won’t get into Cooperstown anyway. He’s been away from the game too long to get on the writers’ ballot and it’s doubtful he would get elected by the Expansion Era veterans committee. Too many current Hall members are adamantly against his election and it’s hard to imagine any voting bloc going against that sentiment. Either reinstate Rose and let his Hall fate be decided or uphold his permanent ban and have that be that.
• Blackouts: It’s 2015. It’s time for them to end. There is no good reason for any game to be blacked out for any reason. Baseball is protecting regional sports networks at a time when people are eschewing television entirely. And you want to get new, young fans into the game, how are they most likely to watch? On their phones or iPads. But a 20-something in Buffalo, for instance, can’t watch the Yankees, Mets, Pirates or Indians on mobile. That same 20-something in Iowa is banned from watching six teams. In Las Vegas, he can’t watch eight teams. It’s ridiculous. Selig never saw this to be a problem and showed he was out of touch. Manfred has four children in their 20s. He should see to this.
• Time of game: Clark said MLB players don’t want to see the 20-second pitch clock being used in the minors. Too bad. It should be in the game starting next year. The impact we’ve seen at Coca-Cola Field this year has been dramatic, both during the game and between innings. The majors are pushing to cut back on time, especially between innings, but can keep going further. An 8:05 p.m. World Series start should not guarantee an 11:30 or later finish. That’s curtains for young fans.
Good call on last at-bat
While we’re on the topic of All-Star Games, baseball has made a wise decision to compensate for lopsided site selection. Because the game decides home-field advantage come October, there’s no way one league should be the home team four straight years. That’s the pattern that we’re now entering.
After Cincinnati, the next three hosts are San Diego, Miami and Washington. So the American League will bat last in San Diego and Washington to compensate for the fact there were lots of bids and new ballparks from NL cities. The NL will bat last in Miami. That’s only fair.
• Another solid Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony in the books honoring Chris Coste, Greg LaRocca and Kevin Lester on Friday night. But it also included the induction of former Bisons General Manager Don Labbruzzo into the IL Hall of Fame. League President Randy Mobley was on hand to present Labbruzzo’s three daughters with the league’s “Curtain Call” statue to signify his induction.
Labbruzzo, a 1987 inductee to the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame, was the Bisons’ GM from 1958-60 and again in 1970, when he took heavy personal losses while trying to save the franchise before it was forfeited to Winnipeg. Under his leadership, the Bisons drew an Offermann Stadium record 413,263 fans in 1959 and won the Larry McPhail Promotional Trophy for excellence in the area of promotions. Labbruzzo, who died in 1999 at age 81, also served as GM in Syracuse (1961-69) and Rochester (1977-78).
• Matt Hague reached the minimum number of plate appearances to clinch the IL batting title Thursday and had three hits Saturday to raise his average to .354, giving him a 28-point lead in the race. Barring a collapse, he’ll be just the third Bisons batting champion of the modern era, joining Mark Ryal (1990) and Ben Francisco (2007). He also has a shot at the modern-era record of .340 set by Dave Clark in 1987.
• The Bisons don’t appear to be going anywhere, especially since they can’t win close games, and their only real shot at breaking their 10-year postseason drought appears to be winning the North Division. The Herd entered Saturday five games out in the division with 51 to play and seven out of the wild-card.