After taking steps recently to shorten the games, will Major League Baseball’s next significant move be to trim the length of the season?
Sounds radical. But with negotiations already underway to craft a new collective-bargaining agreement, the practicality of playing 162 games in the span of 183 days — as influenced by the often grueling scheduling demands of TV networks — is a topic that is generating plenty of discussion between MLB officials and the union.
The idea of returning to a 154-game regular season has gained momentum recently. Exhausted players have complained about the rigors of the modern travel schedule, which can force teams to jump as many as three time zones on consecutive days.
The American League switched to a 162-game schedule in 1961 after expanding by two teams, which then allowed the 10 teams to play each other 18 times. The NL didn’t go to 162 games until the following season, when it also went to 10 teams.
Simply dropping eight games, however, is not so easily done. And the two sides could choose to make it two or four instead. Oddly enough, the conversation is getting louder now partly because of MLB’s stricter testing for performance-enhancing drugs. Despite the health hazard and warping effects on the record book, PEDs could help players survive an extremely taxing physical workload, and amphetamines made quick turnarounds less tiring.
But now, with night games in one city before day games in the next, players find themselves dragging through the schedule or getting injured as a result. The complication is that teams want the additional attendance and TV ratings that the night games generate, as do the networks broadcasting them.
So MLB and the union are tugging on opposite ends of this rope, with the players, in the middle, being stretched to the limit. With the CBA expiring in December, there could be some impactful legislation on the issue.
“Can something be done? Yeah, things can be done,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in speaking with the BBWAA before Tuesday’s All-Star Game. “There are ways to produce more off days in the schedule. Some of those have very significant economic ramifications that — if in fact we’re going down those roads — those economic ramifications are going to have to be shared by all of the relevant parties. You want to work less, usually you get paid less. But we are prepared to discuss the schedule issues and make proposals that are responsive to the ones that we’ve received from the MLBPA.”
Manfred has exercised a bit of CBA saber-rattling in bringing up “economic ramifications” — a euphemism for cutting into players’ salaries. That’s a difficult thing for the union, any union, to sell to its membership. Doing the math, fewer games means fewer tickets sold, decreased ballpark revenue and less programming unless the 162-game season can be extended by a few weeks, or the playoffs expanded, to try to narrow any financial gap.
As it is, MLB’s television partners drive the bus when it comes to setting your viewing schedule, from Opening Night to Game 7 of the World Series, so the union has a tough task coming up with a plan that would make everyone happy.
MLBPA executive director Tony Clark tried to make the point last week that fewer games would give players the opportunity to be on the field a higher percentage of the time, competing at a higher level. That’s basically the best leverage the union has — the chance to offer a better product, quality over quantity. But figuring out how to do that without interrupting the current revenue streams is going to be a challenge.
“You look to start the season to play and be on the field,” Clark said. “Therefore you can help the team, therefore you put up the numbers you’re looking to put up. Everybody wins. I don’t believe this is a player thing. This is something that the management side and our side need to sit down and try to see where improvements can be made so that as a fan, I can come to the ballpark and know that my favorite players are playing and have a very good chance of playing that day.”
When the question of potentially giving back salary came up, as Manfred suggested, Clark ducked it like a chin-high fastball. He retired in 2009, at age 37, but hadn’t logged more than 140 games in a season since playing 143 in 1999. The two previous years, Clark played 159 and 157, respectively, for the Tigers. He still understands the importance of being on the field as much as possible but believes that fewer games actually might enhance their worth.
“I don’t agree that there would need to be a discussion about a loss of salary or a rollback of salaries,” Clark said. “Because if there is a lessening of the games . . . the value of every game goes up as well. I’m not talking about raising ticket prices. What I’m talking about is the idea that if I’m a fan coming to a ballpark, or I’m purchasing a season ticket, I know I’m going to see my guys as a result of x, y, z being done to make improvements to their overall health.”
Desmond shows way to Jose?
When the Mets signed Jose Reyes last month, the plan was to use him primarily as David Wright’s replacement at third base, but also with the thought of trying him in the outfield. The example they cited was Ian Desmond, the career shortstop with the Nationals who is thriving this season as an All-Star centerfielder for the Rangers.
Desmond had played two games in the outfield — both in rightfield — as compared to 913 at shortstop before signing a one-year, $8-million contract with Texas. But with a spring training to make the switch, Desmond has excelled in the outfield and at the plate, batting .322 with an .899 OPS and 15 home runs through 89 games. The transition, however, isn’t as easy as Desmond has made it look.
“Making a change at the major-league level is challenging, and there was a lot for me to learn,” Desmond said last week during his All-Star stay in San Diego. “I didn’t really come in with any expectations. The only expectations I had were to work hard.”
As Desmond spoke at his All-Star podium, he said Rangers outfield coach Jayce Tingler deserved to be seated beside him for what he contributed to the transformation.
“I’m extremely grateful to him for helping me get to this point,” Desmond said.
The Mets have yet to try Reyes in the outfield. He’s still getting comfortable at third base. Like Desmond, however, Reyes could possess the athleticism to make the move. He just doesn’t have the luxury of six weeks of spring training to get up to speed. And that should give the Mets pause until maybe next February.