SPRING HOPES ETERNAL

Though it might be hard to tell, spring has sprung, and that means that it's baseball season.  The attorneys of Toikka Law Group have a longstanding affection for baseball: founding partner Richard S. "Dick" Toikka still plays in baseball leagues, and he has for the past several seasons hosted clients and other Toikka Law Group attorneys at Washington Nationals home games.  (I could go on, and spin a yarn about how Florida-based partner Rachel Rodriguez successfully recruited a hot prospect from Cuba and partner Roger Morrison is scouting talent in Puerto Rico, but those would only be three-quarter truths.)[1]

Back to springtime and the opening of the Major League Baseball season, a time of year when every fan has high hopes for his team, since as they say, hope springs eternal – though with respect to baseball and opening day, I say it's spring hopes, eternal.

What Baseball Is

My personal love for the game of baseball has many facets, including the fact that I enjoyed playing it, through high school and even a year of junior varsity in NCAA Division III.  As many others have said with far more authority and eloquence than I can say it, baseball is a sport that can be played by persons of all shapes and sizes.  As a spectator sport, I can't imagine a better game than baseball, where every single play presents a scoring opportunity.  The format of the game is very fair, since each team is guaranteed an equal number of chances to win the game as its opponent.  There are no tie games, and further games are not decided by shootouts, or by an overtime system that merely resembles the game, á la college football.  Baseball can be played every day – even twice a day by reasonably fit athletes, and thus provides a steady stream of action for players and fans alike.

Simply put, baseball is the best game, worthy of its title America's National Pastime.[2] 

What Baseball Isn't

This year, as I joined Dick Toikka and a pair of clients at the Washington Nationals' home opener, I sat huddled in the stands on a windy April 5, where the temperature nearly reached the mid-40s at its warmest.  I was grateful our seats were in the sun.  Baseball is not a cold weather sport – those of us who played baseball with wooden bats can close our eyes and still feel our hands stinging from hitting a foul ball on a cold day; in cold weather pitchers cannot grip the ball well enough to maintain control; fielders have the same problem trying to throw the ball with cold fingers.  Baseball is even worse in the rain.  Baseball is no fun for players or fans in anything but fair weather.  It is for good reason that Roger Kahn called them The Boys of Summer.

Baseball is also not a game of inches, and it is a sport where a single game gives almost no true indication of the relative strength of competing teams.  The very best teams in Major League Baseball history have lost nearly a third of their games.

At the other end of the season from Opening Day, it was on October 5, 2014 that Toikka Law Group attorneys and clients attended the longest game in Major League postseason history, a 6 hour, 23 minute, 18 inning game that ended after midnight.  The weather that night was also more suitable for football than baseball, though the lowest temperature of that playoff game was probably slightly higher than the highest temperature on April 5 of this year.

What Do Fans Want – This Fan, at Least

As a lifelong fan of baseball, I want the highest quality of play for the longest possible time.  Given the above boundary conditions, that demands at minimum that teams play only during fair weather.  Historically, when fans think of highest quality of play, they think of the postseason, and especially to the World Series.  But the Major League Baseball playoff system has been expanded to the point where it is highly unlikely that the best team in each league will reach the World Series.  During Major League Baseball's "Golden Era," each league had 8 teams, only 1 of which played in the postseason – the World Series.  Contrast that with today, where each league has 15 teams, 5 of which play in the postseason.

That expansion of the postseason has caused the extinction of the second, and more prolific source of high quality baseball: pennant races.  In the past, a team had to finish in first place in order to play in the World Series.  Nowadays, a team can finish third(!) in its division and still make it to the World Series.  The cruel irony of that system is that any team with a reasonable chance to finish in first place will necessarily slow its pace as the season winds down, in order to prepare for the postseason.  In the process, fans are robbed of high quality play by the best teams.  The only "pennant races" in Major League Baseball for the past ten years have been between mediocre teams.

A Modest Proposal

Given the above boundary conditions, to provide maximum quality baseball and maximum fan value for the longest possible duration, I propose a system that includes at least the following elements:

  • Regular season starts after tax time, ends no later than a week after Labor Day

As mentioned, quality of play and of spectator enjoyment decreases with temperature.  As we've seen this year, late April is no guarantee of warm weather, but this year's MLB Opening Day of March –March! – 29 guaranteed cold weather, at least in northern cities.

  • Season Shortened

As I mentioned, it takes many games for a team to establish itself as superior, but it certainly doesn't require the current 162 game season to decide which one out of every three teams should enter the postseason.  If the regular season starts in mid-April and ends in mid-September, the teams can play a 130 game season using the same basic schedule of two series per week.

  • Teams Must Finish First to Enter Playoffs

Pennant races provide the most high quality competition for the longest time.  Occasionally injustices occur, where a clearly superior team finishes second in its division while weaker teams from other divisions advance.  That's sports – it builds character.  But the consolation for fans is that they saw lots of high quality baseball played during the pennant race.  With 15 teams in each league, this would require considerable fine tuning.

No solution is perfect, and I would enjoy discussing any of the above suggestions further.  I thus welcome your comments and input.

At Toikka Law Group, we put thought into our work with clients, just as we put thought into how to improve Major League Baseball for everyone.  We invite you to share your thoughts with us in the comments.

© 2018 Russell O. Paige, all rights reserved.

 

[1] Rachel Rodriguez is in fact half-Cuban by birth, and she married a Cuban; Roger Morrison is returning soon to his home in Puerto Rico – be sure and read on this blog his harrowing first person account of living through Hurricane Maria on that island.

[2] See John Thorn, Baseball: Our Game (Penguin Books, 1995) ("Baseball is not a conventional industry. It belongs neither to the players nor management, but to all of us. It is our national pastime, our national symbol, and our national treasure.")