As always, a disclaimer that this is hardly the most important thing of the times right now. But it’s important to get these fantasies out before they turn sinister and weird and involve trying to write the Grim Reaper’s Tinder profile.
It seems almost a tease at this point for league executives or media anywhere to even hint at starting things back up for their respective leagues in May. As more and more of us live under shelter-in-place rules, which not nearly enough places have even gotten to yet (can we just wall off Florida? We all have wanted to anyway), it’s pretty much known this isn’t going to be merely a two- or even three-week subscription for us. This is a long haul kind of thing, and yes even your dog will be wondering why you don’t go anywhere soon.
Which means it’s hard to even fathom the weirdness of finishing off the NHL or NBA season, if that’s even possible. Do they really want to do that in the fall? It might come to that, which starts a domino effect on the next season and so on and so on.
MLB finds itself in a different spot. It hasn’t even started yet, and with each missed week of spring training, it’s almost another one you have to make up. We’re just about three to four weeks away from baseball needing a full month of a rebooted spring training again just to start whatever competition it can set up. Even the sunniest outlook would have you starting a season at Mothers’ Day, and even that seems a longshot.
The question must be asked, and probably is being asked among team and league officials as we speak: What’s the point if a season can’t even be considered legitimate? You can recall past NHL and NBA lockouts, where the most desperate measures saw plans for a 30-game season outlined. And mostly, they were laughed out of the building. The NHL canceled a season rather than put forth some kind of sham (there was a last ditch effort before the guillotine came out that was basically dismissed). Neither the NBA or NHL has put forth a season that was less than half of what they normally run. The NHL has run a 48-game season twice, and the NBA ran a 66-game competition in 2011-2012. It feels like most sports would consider not being able to run at least half of a normal schedule not worth it, not legitimate.
MLB might not have a choice here. Even conservative estimates have us under these conditions through May. That leaves most or all of June for spring-training/training camp (you could see MLB moving teams north anyway for the season ramp-up just to be amongst fans again, though travel would be a bitch). As discussed earlier, July 1 still leaves time for a 100-game season.
But what if this goes on longer? What if MLB only has August on, or less, to play with? A 60-game schedule isn’t going to feel real to anyone. It would be something of a sham.
Still, you’d have this time. The players would want to play. Fans would want something to watch and attend. There isn’t much else on the sports calendar in August (though there could be this time around, admittedly).
Who says you have to have an “MLB Season?” Why not use the unique and unprecedented circumstances to trot out something different?
It’s easy to say, “What would anyone have to lose?” But of course, the technical issues are hardly light touches. Service time and CBA adjustments are going to be major sticking points. The Dodgers certainly didn’t want to trade for Mookie Betts and then get no games out of him, for instance. On the other side, Betts doesn’t want to be a year older when he hits free agency than he thought. It’s issues like this and dozens of others that have to be sorted. But they’d have to be sorted if you played no games either. Might as well do it while putting forth something.
So say baseball only gets from August 1 on to work with. Let’s get a little nuts. Do something new. Not even call it an MLB season, but an “MLB Cup” or something. Make it clear it’s a different competition. Different trophy. Different system. No leagues and divisions.
What could it look like? The first is a slight change. Let’s go with five groups of six teams instead of six divisions of five. Randomly drawn. If teams really throw their toys out of the crib about that, then the Nationals, Astros, Yankees, Cardinals (last year’s final four) and the Dodgers (last year’s best record) can be seeded in the groups and the rest randomly drawn. Or you could seed the five best regular-season records from last year in separate groups. There are choices.
The beauty here is the Dodgers and Angels or Yankees and Mets could be drawn together. So could the Nationals and Astros again. So could Florida and Seattle for a real headache. That’s life.
So how does it work? Every team plays every other team in its group six times (three away, three at home). This way every team gets 30 games to fill up August and into September. The top three in each group move on, along with the best fourth-place team (head-to-head record and run-differential would be your first two tie-breakers).
And no DH.
Then what? Seed this Sweet 16, 1-16 and play them off. Five-game series, seven-game series, whichever. You’d have most of September and however deep into October to complete four rounds of “playoffs” as it were. Which should be plenty of time, given that the MLB playoffs now run to the end of October anyway.
Again, the appeal here is you’d get some matchups you’re unlikely to see for a very long time. A series between Tampa and Cincinnati might not get the heart racing, but Cubs-Yankees would be easy to sell.
Again, it’s all in how you sell it. If you don’t try to guise it as a normal season, that it’s something different. Sell it as providing something for your fans in strange times, even though it’s not what they’re used to. You’re not asking them to pretend to not notice what’s missing. It shows creativity. Ingenuity. Unafraid of trying things, which is something MLB has been labeled with for a long while now.
It’s better than having players and fans sitting around doing nothing when there’s freedom to do something, while also not trying to recognize it as what usually happens. It requires no cognitive dissonance.
There are other ways you could run it. Three groups of ten with 54 games in the groups. Or 36 games. Who cares?
It’s something. Something is better than nothing. And you never know what might spring from it for future use.