Friday, November 18, 2011

Big picture stuff

Jim Crane, approved Thursday as the new owner of the
Houston Astros, got a sizable discount on the purchase
price for agreeing to move to the AL West from the
NL Central.
The baseball news of Thursday included some groundbreaking stuff:

  • The Houston Astros will move from the National League to the American League. This will result in two leagues of 15 teams each and five teams per division. It will also result in year-round interleague play.
  • The playoff field will be expanded to five teams per league, with a one-game playoff between the wild card teams.
  • And a report, at this point not confirmed publicly by either side, that a new collective bargaining agreement has been reached between the players union and the owners. Details expected on Monday.

Taking the last one first: The NFL had a lockout this past spring and summer that threatened the season. The NBA is has its lockout and appears unlikely to have a season. Baseball's labor situation is peaceful. A bit contentious, sure, but peaceful. Why is baseball different today?

Because of 1994. The NFL and NBA sought to break their unions (and succeeded, as did the NHL about eight years ago). Baseball tried in 1994 to break the MLBPA, and failed. The players had the nerve to pick the timing of the work action and picked the time when they had leverage -- in midseason. In the other leagues, it was the owners who decided when and how the disputes would escalate -- in the offseason, after the championships were decided.

The 1994 strike damaged the game financially for a few years, and it scarred both sides badly enough that nobody involved wants to see it happen again, but baseball has largely recovered from the damage. As long as there's sufficient institutional memory, it won't happen again.

Baseball is our only major sport without a "salary cap." It also seems to be doing quite well financially.


On to the Astros and wild cards and implications thereof:

This appears to be part of the labor deal. The players dislike the current uneven divisional set up (the AL West now has four teams, the NL Central has six), and it's blindly obvious that the current playoff field devalues winning a division championship.

LaVelle Neal of the StarTribune said in his blog (paywall, no link) that baseball has come up with solutions in search of a problem. I believe he is reacting rather than thinking.

Year-round interleague play? I'm not a fan of interleague play at any time -- I'd rather dump it altogether -- but that ship sailed long ago. Neal's complaint that interleague games in September will distort the pennant race is silly. A game in September is worth exactly as much in the standings as one in June. There's just less time left in which a trailing team can make up ground. I would think it less disruptive for an AL team with a regular DH to deal with taking him out of the lineup for one series every two months or so than to have to do it for a solid week.

LVN suspects the one-game playoff is intended to re-create annually the drama of the final day of the 2011 season. It's actually been on the table for more than a year; 2011 had nothing to do with it.

A one-game playoff between wild-card teams is preferable to a three-game series because of the schedule. A three-game series would force the division winners to sit around for the better part of a week. A one-gamer also emphatically underlines the purpose: To reward teams for winning their division.

Again, I'd prefer the old system, in which there was one pennant winner in the league who went straight to the World Series. That ended in the 1960s, and it ain't coming back.

This plan isn't perfect. It's better than what we've got.

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