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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2004/02/26
by David Steinberg

Saving Baseball

This usually is an exciting time for baseball fans. Pitchers and
catchers are reporting, exhibition games are a few weeks away, and the
season will be starting in another month after that. This year is
different though. The trade of Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees has
fans up in arms. Dugout Dollars has the Yankees payroll at a tad under
$200,000,000. That’s seventy million dollars more than the next team
(the Red Sox), more than twice as much as the 7th place Seattle
Mariners, and nearly ten times that of the Brewers. It’s reached the
point where the rest of the league is starting to wonder how they can
compete.
Sports are not like other businesses. Sprint would love it if all
other cell phone companies went out of business as they could then
make a fortune. The Yankees, on the other hand, would become
completely irrelevant if they didn’t have other teams to play against.
That’s why competitive balance is so important here; sports is not a
typical free market.
It must be said that some of the anger and fear over this move might
be overblown. Effectively all the Yankees have done is move their
hole in their lineup from third base to second base. Yes Alex
Rodriguez is a much better player than Soriano but the season is far
from being over, even if it doesn’t look all that good outside the
Bronx, let alone in Seattle. However, let’s assume the worst. What
if the Yankees use their hired guns to win 110+ games and then stroll
their way to a World Series victory. Is there anything baseball can
do about this?
One of my ideas was inspired by a piece of news I heard about
Pollstar. Red Rocks won the Pollstar Best Small Outdoor
Concert Venue award so many times that they just decided to rename the
award after the venue and make it ineligible. If they have no other
plan, Major League Baseball could just call the trophy, ‘The New York
Yankees Trophy’ and disband the team.
As amusing as that idea is, it’s just silly. Sure the argument that
a powerhouse Yankees team is good for the game is just wrong; a couple
extra thousand fans come to Kansas City when the Yankees are in town,
but the effect is much less than what would happen if the Royals could
keep their players and compete. However, they do make money and
aren’t bad by themselves. It’s not that the Yankees dominate Major
League Baseball, rather it’s that MLB is the only real baseball league
that exists.
In the early part of the last century, there were many baseball
leagues. The major leagues were the biggest, but people who didn’t
live in one of the cities that had a team followed their own leagues.
No matter where you lived, there was a team nearby. Over the next few
decades those teams got bought by major league teams. Instead of
playing for their own championships, they played what were effectively
exhibition games. The goal of the minors is no longer to win; it’s
to train players. This has been going on for way too long and it
should be stopped.
The reason why this is allowed to happen is because MLB has an
anti-trust exemption due to a ridiculous Supreme Court decision. If
that were to be removed – allowing each team to keep one AAA team in
case of injuries – things could become a lot more interesting.
Would minor league teams really draw if they were playing for real?
I think so. College football and basketball teams aren’t as good as
those in the NFL but fans still come out to see them. Minor leagues
in soccer and hockey have strong local support. Even the XFL
actually did well; only the insanely high standards the league
presented made it look like a failure. The potential is there and I
haven’t even mentioned my master plan.
If I were in charge of the baseball universe, the minors would be
structured like this. There would be 32 independent leagues, each
one representing a state (or province – this wouldn’t be US only) or
two. By keeping the leagues on a small scale it both reduces
expenses and heightens local rivalries. Washington State has a
cultural divide between the cities west of the Cascades and those east
of it. An Olympia vs Spokane championship game would have the whole
state taking sides. That by itself would be enough to help the
leagues out, but it’s not the whole plan. I chose the number 32 for a
reason.
Picture this. All of these seasons end in mid-August or so. At the
end of the year the champion of each league is then put into a
tournament. Think March Madness only for baseball. Winning the
league doesn’t just give you local bragging rights, it would give you
a shot at national glory. People would make brackets, guides would
be created for teams that represent the Quad Cities and Tuscaloosa.
Baseball would thrive in all of the regions of the country.
The realist in me feels compelled to point out that this could very
well be overoptimistic. While this sounds like a good plan on paper,
it could easily fail when implemented. That might be true, but never
mind that. Spring Training is starting now. If I can’t get excited
for my Mariners this year, I can at least speculate about a better
baseball world.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New
Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live
music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His
Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html
He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at
http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.

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