They found the keys. After 99 days, baseball unlocked its doors and now we can start looking at free agents and game times instead of negotiating points and deadlines. The trending saying on Twitter yesterday was “Baseball is back!”
And it is. Sorta.
It’s not the same game that we last saw, of course. Numerous changes both to on-the-field and off-the-field procedures were made during the negotiations, which is not unexpected. If it was just about salaries, it probably wouldn’t have taken quite this long. (Then again, given the owners seemed to specifically want to push things back, maybe it would have.) There are a lot of changes, some–maybe most or all–that many people will like and accept.
Not in this space!
As you know from the reading of this space (and if you didn’t know, the latest Meet Me at Musial should have made clear), I’m a stodgy old man when it comes to, well, pretty much everything but definitely baseball. I’m still not enamored with the wild card, even though it’s been around for 25 years, and I’m really not a fan of two of them. I think interleague play is ridiculous. I like the history and tradition of baseball. Unfortunately, no one else does, at least not those in positions of power.
So let’s look at a few of these new changes. Things like the increase in minimum salary, the pre-arbitration pool, and the increase in the Competitive Balance Tax are really good. Anything that gets the players more of a percentage of the huge revenues that are flooding into baseball is a good thing. Without them, this game doesn’t happen and while I’m not completely anti-owner–they should be able to receive the benefits of the money they put into the game–there’s no doubt that the pendulum has swung too far to one side. I remember when Ozzie Smith was the highest paid player in the game at $2 million. That was before TV contracts and the like brought billions into the game, though. I don’t fault the players at all for wanting a bigger share.
That’s some good stuff but it’s also stuff that won’t really affect us as fans. Let’s talk about what we will be seeing and discussing.
- Expanded playoffs. It could have been worse–14 of 30 is just a ridiculous abomination–but adding another couple of teams into the playoffs is cheapening the regular season that has been the pillar of baseball for over a hundred years. At least in the current version, you were down to four teams per league almost immediately with the one game play-in. Now the two best teams sit for a week while we have teams that possibly finished fourth in their division taking a shot at winning the whole thing. I doubt that too many under .500 teams will get into the playoffs but it’s a possibility. Maybe this will encourage owners to add a piece if they are close, but I think that will be counteracted by other owners aiming for just enough. After all, building your team to win the division isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get one of those top spots. In fact, assuming there are no qualifiers, this year one of those spots would have been a wild-card team!
- No Game 163. As part of the footballing of baseball, now all ties for playoff positioning will be determined by NFL-style tiebreakers. I don’t know that I’ve seen what they are but I assume it’ll start out at head to head and work down to whose fanbase used the hashtag on Twitter the most in a “final vote” scenario. The winner-take-all games are one of the reasons that baseball expanded to two wildcards because they liked the Game 7 drama being guaranteed. I get that you can’t really do that with the expanded rosters, but it’s just another piece of the uniqueness of baseball being removed.
- Universal DH. Everyone knows how I feel about that. I saw a tweet that said anti-DH fans would love the DH after two games. 1) We saw the DH in 2020 for more than two games, didn’t change a lot of opinions. 2) Ask my wife how stubborn I can be on something. I’m sure that I will get used to it but I’m never going to think it’s really the way baseball should be.
- Draft lottery. On the face of it, this is more of a meh thing for me. I don’t think it’ll impact tanking all that much, really. Teams rarely tank for a specific individual. They tank to get a better draft pick but it’s rare that there’s a Bryce Harper type that’s the focus of the selection. They just want young talent in the system and if they draft second, third, fourth it doesn’t make a large bit of difference. So if you are the Pirates, you can still tank and your reward might be just a little less than it would have been in the past. What that might do is make for a weaker overall draft for those folks if you are drafting fourth or fifth in each round rather than first, but I don’t necessarily see it as a behavior changer.
- Uniform advertising. Again, a break from the clean iconic uniforms of the past. The Nike swoosh wasn’t overly jarring (though still noticeable) but how great is it going to be to have the next iconic picture of a Cardinal be with an add from Ryan Kelly, the Home Loan Expert, right there on the shoulder? However, there might be a dollar left on the table and heaven knows we can’t allow that.
- Shortened window for rule changes. One of the great things about baseball, in my mind, is that there WEREN’T constant rule changes. It’s not like the NFL where every year after the season they pull this or tweak that or redefine a catch for the 80th time. I’ve never cared for the commissioner having the ability to unilaterally implement changes but at least in the past, with a year of requirement, you probably didn’t do it very often. Now when you only have to give 45 days notice we’ll probably see something every year. Some of those will be OK (I don’t have a problem with larger bases, for instance), but I don’t want to have to take continuing education every winter to figure out what is going on in baseball!
- Expansion of sports betting. For a game that has been corrupted by betting in the past, who threw out one of their major icons for betting on the game, who has a rule in every clubhouse about not betting, this unholy alliance with sports betting is unseemly and hypocritical. Encouraging people to lose their money just doesn’t seem like being a great steward of the game, but again, there’s money to be made and the owners compete more for revenue streams than they do for a championship.
- Balanced schedule. While I get the draw of seeing every team each year, I also appreciated having to play your division much more often than anyone else. If you won the division, chances are you did your business against the other teams. Granted, with a balanced schedule in theory you are playing other teams the same amount, unlike in the past where you could get more games against the Yankees while the Brewers had more games against the Royals. I just would like to preserve some of the rivalries and histories. We’re going to go from 19 Cubs games to, what, maybe 9? Is that worth seeing the Angels once a year? I also feel like this and the DH are a step toward a universal MLB, with AL and NL either being eliminated (via a radical realignment) or there in name only. I could see a future where the top 12 teams go to the playoffs regardless of league affiliation. I can see a future where it’s all one big gray thing instead of the stark differences of the AL and NL. It’s already gone that way with the removal of league presidents. Now there’s nothing special about either side.
That’s a lot of grumping, so let’s finish up with some of the good things out of this. The biggest of those, of course, is the final destruction of the zombie runners. Extra innings will be played like extra innings should be played. Doubleheaders have also returned to the full nine innings, which is good. Seven inning DH were tolerable but it’s better to have the full thing than some shortened version. What might be very interesting is that players now can only be demoted five times during a season, which will limit the Memphis shuttle somewhat. Five is still a lot but there have definitely been years where folks have surpassed that. It’s going to give a new wrinkle to roster management which is intriguing.
Baseball is back and I’m sure once games start I’ll be more excited about that return. It’s going to take some adjustment, though. I had started filling that free time already and now to have to return to blog posts, podcasts, The Cardinal Six, and everything else that the season holds is a little overwhelming and provides the opportunity to wonder if I really want to keep doing this. Fake it until you make it, right? Let’s get started!