Leader Blues

Saturday, October 10, 2009

SPORTS >> With the playoffs, baseball season begins long haul

By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor

The end of the baseball regular season really snuck up on me this year, and the playoffs are already in full throttle. September just seemed to disappear like the Detroit Tigersí lead in the AL Central.

But not to worry; if baseball is true to its recent, plodding past, and Tuesdayís 12-inning play-in game between Minnesota and Detroit is any indication, we should still have almost a month to enjoy the sport.

The game best played on green pastures and watched under brilliant, lofty skies, will grind mercifully to a halt under wet, winter weather, after the death of daylight savings time, the end of the high school football regular season and the first appearance of Christmas decorations at the Walmart in Cabot, a fine old town whose name, when translated, means ďNo left turns.Ē

Thanks to the 162-game season, a wild-card round in the playoffs and a weather-related bad break, it took the Philadelphia Phillies and the surprising Tampa Bay Rays until Oct. 29 of last year to wrap up the Philliesí World Series title.

If the 2008 Series, whose conclusion was delayed by a 46-hour rain suspension, had gone the full seven, it would have lasted into the middle of the first week of November. This yearís schedule almost guarantees it will.

Game 7, if necessary, is set for Nov. 5.

Look, I love baseball, truly. And one of the things making it special is the long season. You donít have to watch every game; you can step away for a week or so here and there and come back to find things havenít changed all that drastically.

And itís hard to beat a long afternoon at the ballpark, making fast friends with your new neighbors in the nearby seats and watching the game unfold at its own pace, free from the dictates of the clock.

But the best parties always seem to end too soon, and baseball at its best is clean and compact. Two hours and 30 minutes is about as long as a game needs to be, and we certainly donít need postseason games played after Election Day.

To be fair, baseball got a late start this year because of the World Baseball Classic played in the spring. But there is still no need for World Series games played in November.

So, get Bud Selig on the phone. I have a solution.

Letís scale back the season close to the length it was before expansion, divisional playoff games and the wild card round. Letís get the length of the season below 160 games, closer to its original 154.

How do we do it? Subtract that horrible, extra round of inter-league play.

There were 252 scheduled inter-league games played in two segments in 2009. The first round was played from May 22-24 and the second was played June 12-28.

One round allows for the intriguing match-ups ó the subway series and cross-town and regional rivalries like the Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox, and Cardinals-Royals.

The other inter-league round this year included such hot-ticket showdowns as the Washington Nationals versus the Tampa Rays or the Cincinnati Reds versus the Toronto Blue Jays. If we subtract just six of those yawners from every schedule weíre down to a tidy 158 games.

And maybe, just maybe, with a shorter season, fans would feel a slightly greater sense of urgency to buy tickets or tune in and catch the quality games, the important league and divisional meetings, that are left on our shorter schedule.

Of course the advertisers will never let this happen. Too much revenue is at stake. You can sell more cars ó and Detroit certainly needs to ó on a longer schedule, so my little plan will never take flight and Selig will never return my calls.

So letís replace those six, lousy inter-league games with something that means more to fans and teams alike. Let the Cubs play the Cardinals more often in the NL Central; let the hated Yankees play the hated Red Sox or let the Los Angeles Angels play the Oakland Athletics a few more times.

Of course scheduling is complicated by the fact there are 14 American League teams and 16 National League teams, so itís hard to create balance, but Iím sure the button pushers in the Major League scheduling office can come up with a workable program or formula. Thatís not my problem.

My problem will be having trick-or-treaters interrupt my enjoyment of World Series Game 3.