This Sunday afternoon, at 1 p.m. ET, the Philadelphia Phillies will play the University of Tampa Spartans at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida. It is a real, live baseball game, played with professional athletes wearing Major League uniforms; look, it's even on the official MLB scoreboard. On Sunday, it will have been 124 days since the last time professional athletes wearing Major League uniforms played a real, live baseball game. That is way, way too long.
If I had my druthers, there would be roughly 660 games in the baseball season. They would play 11 months out of the year, doubleheaders every day, and then have a month of playoffs. They'd get a couple of days off, and then they'd get right back out there for November Spring Training. Any day where there is no baseball is a day lessened. I wish there were games every day, every hour of the night.
Of course, baseball doesn't exist specifically for me, even if it can feel that way sometimes. If they actually played 660 games, teams would be playing in blinding snowstorms, schedules would look like chalkboards in a college advanced physics professor's classroom and, oh yeah, every player would probably be near death by the end of the season. (Or by its middle.) Alas: We cannot live in the world of perfection to which we all aspire. Maybe in the afterlife.
The point is that if you're a fan of baseball -- or of any sport, really -- no number of games is ever quite enough. Watching a baseball game is always better than not watching a baseball game. The more, the merrier. So, certainly my ears perked up yesterday when new Commissioner Rob Manfred made some comments to our old friend Darren Rovell.
Before we get into the comments themselves, may I say: As someone who (obviously) deeply loves this game, I have been enjoying the first month or so of Manfred's tenure. He seems to be approaching the game, its virtues and its problems, with the workshopping vigor of your favorite, most inspiring high school English teacher; you imagine him turning the chair backwards and saying, "Let's rap, kids." He wants to talk about everything, sort of turn the game inside out and examine it, have an open conversation about what works, and what doesn't. It's an exploration, really, and everything's on the table, from banning shifts to Pete Rose to MLB's corporate culture to Montreal to you name it.
In action, Manfred has proven so far rather moderate; his pace-of-game changes were subtle and judiciously imposed. But he's having big, legitimate conversations about the direction of this game over the next several decades, and even when I sometimes disagree with the premise, I'm always glad we're even discussing these things. Baseball needs evolution, not revolution, and Manfred seems to understand this.
All right, so yesterday, he dropped another one of his Manfred Bombs -- as I have just decided to start calling them -- tossing out one more "conversation" for us all to chew on. This one concerned the length of the regular season. He told Rovell:
"I don't think length of season is a topic that can't ever be discussed. I don't think it would be impossible to go back to 154 [games]. We already have some of our record books which reflect a 154-game season and obviously some of it reflects a 162-game season. So there's some natural flexibility there. But if anyone suggests to go to something like 110 games, then there's a real problem. That will throw all our numbers out of whack."
Now, this is a typical Manfred Bomb: He says that something big and different and potentially scary is not "a topic that can't ever discussed" while noting, also, that the issue is "not at the top of his mind" and that insiders don't think this is "something that needs to be dealt with anytime soon." This is the signature identifier of Manfred's first month. He doesn't implement these major changes, or even necessarily promote or advocate them: He just floats them out there and leaves it up to us. In other words: Talk amongst yourselves, class.
So, let's talk about it. Obviously, Manfred is right: There was once a 154-game season with its own records, and now we have 162-game seasons. But we have essentially merged those two record books. I remember when I was a kid, the 162-game season was only 20 years old or so (it was implemented in 1961, though, bizarrely, the American League played 162 games that season while the National League only played 154), and you used to see records set under each schedule both mentioned in the record books. We stopped doing that because it has been more than 50 years; only old-timers remember the season was ever 154 games. Of course, this is an argument for Manfred's point as well; eventually, when something has been going on for a long time, people forget it was different. If you switched to 154 games, people would freak out for a while (like they did when it went to 162 games), and then they'll just accept it as the new reality and move forward. This is a fundamental truth of change: The furor about the second Wild Card a few years ago was intense at first, and now I don't even know anyone who brings it up anymore. Things feel weird and new, until they don't.
The issue with, and the potential power of, a 154-game schedule is that no one really would want it but the players. Teams and owners won't like it; they'll have to give up four home games, and all the ticket receipts and concession sales that come with it. Fans won't like it because it means fewer baseball games; you're taking something away from them. Networks won't like it because it eliminates eight nights of live programming, and live programming is the lifeblood of the television industry right now. The only thing anyone who isn't a player would get out of it would be World Series games that take place a couple of weeks earlier and thus would maybe be a little less freezing.
But players would obviously get a lot out of it, and that might be all that matters. The NBA -- a season that, while featuring half as many games as baseball, feels like it drags on forever -- has been talking about chopping the season down for a few years now, and the main reason is the frustration of the players. (LeBron James has been among the loudest proponents of this idea.) It is hard playing a full season of baseball. By the end of the season, players are beaten up and exhausted. Baseball is a grind; it's supposed to be a grind. Players will never argue against getting a few more days a year off, because human beings will never argue against getting a few more days a year off. Wouldn't you?
One of the finest achievements of Bud Selig when he left office, the thing he probably should have been most proud of, was that baseball is the North American professional sport with the calmest, most peaceful labor situation. (This peace was wrought, of course, from the wreckage of losing the 1994 World Series, a low moment in Selig's tenure.) Labor peace is the most important factor in keeping baseball healthy. It's not PEDs, or the pace of the game, or instant replay, or television ratings, any of that. It's labor peace. Manfred, in his "just-tossing-stuff-out-there-guys" way, has just handed an olive branch to the Major League Baseball Players Association: Just so you know, two more weeks off a year is on the table. Maybe 154 will happen, and maybe it won't. But it's now a topic of discussion. It will be a part of negotiations. It's not something that has to be "dealt with anytime soon." But it's in the air now.
I don't want MLB to go down to 154 games; as I said, I want them to play 660. (I volunteer to fill in as a team's 86th catcher, if need be.) But players are the ones who make these games happen, not fans, not owners, not the Commissioner. And they very well might want to have a shorter regular season. The point is not that this is definitely going to happen, or whether it should or it shouldn't. The point is that it's something we have to talk about. Everything is on the table. It's an ongoing discussion. That's the Manfred Bomb. [turns chair around] All right, kids, let's rap.