By Jay Jaffe
The new season that begins on Sunday night will usher in yet another major change to a sport that has seen its share over the past 20 years. Houston's switch to the American League leaves two leagues of 15 teams apiece, broken evenly into three five-team divisions, necessitating year-round interleague play. On the heels of last year's major development -- the addition of a second wild-card team in each league and an extra postseason game between them -- we know more big changes are in store (expanded instant replay chief among them). With first pitch just around the corner, it's time to take stock of where baseball is, where it's going and, perhaps more importantly, where it should go. Here are 20 ways the national pastime could be made even better.
1. Make Opening Day a national holiday. The return of baseball after the frigid misery of winter should always be celebrated, and as it remains the national pastime, the date should be recognized accordingly. Return the privilege of officially starting the season to the Reds, since Cincinnati was the birthplace of professional baseball. Send the President to Nationals Park to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. Pair the previous season's pennant winners in a matchup, since interleague play is now a daily occurrence. Schedule a quadrupleheader to be divided among the national broadcast partners, and make sure every American (and Canadian) has the day off to enjoy it all.
2. Revamp the television blackout policy. The technological revolution that has enabled fans to watch games in other markets via MLB.tv and Extra Innings, and on devices such as tablets and smartphones, is a wonderful thing. But MLB could do an even better job of building its audience by scrapping the arcane blackout rules that prevent fans from watching their local nine — or several not-quite-local nines — via such packages in real time. It's not like they're unwilling to pay for the privilege of watching crucial at-bats from the bus stop or the bathroom.
3. Name a new commissioner. For a former used car salesman installed during a coup that led to the worst work stoppage in the sport's history, Bud Selig hasn't been that bad, particularly when compared to his predecessors or heads of other major sports. Innovations such as interleague play and the wild card may offend purists, but their introduction has coincided with incredible revenue growth via increased attendance and rights fees, and the game now enjoys a hard-won labor peace as well as the strongest drug policy in major professional sports. Even so, Selig is 78 years old, and it's time for a younger commissioner to usher in a new era, whether it's a well-respected executive like Sandy Alderson or Derrick Hall, a media star such as Bob Costas or actor/minor league tycoon Bill Murray.
4. Adopt the designated hitter in both leagues. The rule has been around for 40 seasons, and the players' union isn't about to let it be rolled back at the cost of high-paying jobs. With season-long interleague play, NL teams will be at a competitive disadvantage if they don't cultivate their own DH options. Besides, nobody needs to see pitchers risk injury or parade their ineptitude by flailing at a .129/.162/.166 clip, as they did last year.
5. Expand instant replay. This one's on its way, but after experimenting with two technologies for aiding fair/foul and caught/trapped calls late last season, MLB has decided to spend another year researching a more all-encompassing solution that could handle outs at every base. As with the late-2008 introduction of the technology to handle boundary calls, it should be possible — and preferable — to get a new system in place in time for the 2013 postseason, instead of waiting for 2014.
6. Cull the umps. For too long, a handful of troublesome arbiters — Angel Hernandez, Joe West, C.B. Bucknor and Bob Davidson among them — have done their best to make the game about their authority instead of the actions of players. As tempting as it may be to replace them with robots, at the very least, MLB needs to institute a process via which all umpires are held more accountable for their actions — including enforcement of a uniform strike zone — and disciplined with transparency, with the worst of the lot vulnerable to losing their jobs, and only the best receiving the prestigious postseason assignments.
7. Keep the World Baseball Classic spirit going by sending regular season baseball overseas. The international tournament has its inherent limitations — particularly due to the need not to overtax pitchers — but the game's growth outside of North America was on full display this month, as teams from Brazil, China, Italy and the Netherlands made their presences felt, and the Dominican Republic took home the WBC title. With four years until the next Classic, MLB should maintain the momentum by scheduling series abroad in Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean, Asia, even South America, perhaps as many as one a month. Implement it in time for next season, so each team gets at least one trip overseas before the next tournament, and so that once or twice a year, we in the United States can wake up to baseball being played in far-off lands. The revenue would more than offset the loss of a few home dates for the participants. Plus we'd all get to say "HONKBAL!" more often.
8. Banish Jeffrey Loria. With Frank McCourt out of the picture, the Marlins' owner is the game's worst by a country mile, and not just for his repeated roster teardowns and crimes against good taste. Loria conned local taxpayers into footing 80 percent of the bill for a $634 million ballpark, triggering a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. Force him to sell the team and reimburse taxpayers for every last cent via the proceeds and his private fortune, then send him to Antarctica to live out his days discussing 20th century art with indifferent penguins.
9. Expand to Montreal, and Puerto Rico as well. It's tempting to uproot the Marlins, but the ballpark is built, and Florida fans deserve the sunshine of a better ownership group. Instead, baseball should add two more teams, with one stationed in Montreal, where the Expos played from 1969 through 2004 and produced Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson as well as Tim Raines (more on him momentarily), Vladimir Guerrero and Youppi. To round things off at an even 32 teams, the Portland, Charlotte and New York/New Jersey markets may have their merits, but San Juan, Puerto Rico makes for a compelling choice, too. Though making its residents subject to the amateur draft has taken its toll, baseball has a rich tradition on the island, and fans have demonstrated incredible enthusiasm while flocking to aging Hiram Bithorn Stadium to support the World Baseball Classic or the occasional regular-season detour. Though small by MLB standards, the market could become a tourism magnet for baseball-crazed fans from other Caribbean countries as well as the U.S.
10. Sell the Mets. Even after being cleared of further liability in the Madoff scandal, the Mets are drowning in red ink, as nearly a billion dollars worth of loans to the team and its television network comes due in the next two years. The need to service their debt has left the team padding its roster with Quad-A filler and undead retreads such as Marlon Byrd. Meanwhile, the public relations gaffes continue; how tone-deaf do owners implicated in a Ponzi scheme have to be to allow Amway to open a storefront at Citi Field? MLB and Mets fans need to be rid of the Wilpons, putting the franchise in the hands of an owner who can afford to rebuild in a manner befitting the majors' largest market.
11. Build new ballparks for the A's and Rays. Since the opening of the Blue Jays' Skydome (now Rogers Centre) back in 1989, every major league team except the Cubs, Red Sox, Dodgers, Royals and A's has gotten a new ballpark. Fenway Park, Dodger Stadium and Kauffman Stadium have received substantial facelifts, and plans are in the works to renovate Wrigley Field well. Oakland's rent-a-name Coliseum is a dilapidated mess ill-suited for baseball, a big reason why the team has ranked in the AL's bottom three in attendance in each of the past seven years. The expansion Rays, mired in the gloomy Tropicana Dome (est. 1990), haven't done much better at the gate. Smart management has brought some success on shoestring budgets to both teams, who deserve better ballparks via which they can slug it out with the financial heavyweights.
12. Open the books. To far too great an extent, the bill for the aforementioned stadium boom was footed by taxpayers, not the owners profiting from those upgraded venues. Baseball teams are privately run businesses, but their reliance on public money — not to mention their antitrust exemption — should be accompanied by greater financial transparency. Knowing how big an annual profit the next Loria-wannabe is raking in, and how much money he's paying himself, could help prevent future stadium scandals.
13. Penalize performance-enhancing drug use via stronger suspensions. MLB and the players' union have come a long way in beefing up the game's drug policy to the point that it's by far the best in professional sports. While some worry that the increasing number of suspensions — seven last year, more than in the previous four years combined — reflects a new epidemic of cheaters, the stronger likelihood is that it reflects the program's enhanced ability to detect users. As a means of bolstering public confidence that players and owners want a cleaner game, the two sides are discussing stronger penalties. At this point, a 100-game ban for a first offense, and a full-season ban for a second one — accompanied by ineligibility for All-Star honors and awards in the season(s) of the suspension — isn't unreasonable.
14. Suspend players for DUI and domestic abuse. In contrast to their progress on the PED front, baseball has done nothing to penalize far more dangerous and destructive behaviors such as driving under the influence of alcohol or abusing wives and girlfriends. The league may be content to let law enforcement handle such offenses, but it could have far more impact if it took additional action in such cases by suspending guilty players without pay for similar lengths of time as PED violators, and donating their salaries to programs oriented towards awareness, treatment and prevention.
15. Reform the Hall of Fame voting. The Hall is not a church, it's a rogues' gallery reflecting a bumpy history that includes segregationists, spitballers, Prohibition-era alcoholics and numerous other brands of miscreants — an honest reflection of the men who have played and run the game. The misguided impulse to sanitize it, largely as a protest against an infiltration of PEDs for which players, owners, commissioner and media all share responsibility, is the result of writers leaning on the ballot's antiquated and selectively applied character clause. Ditch it, and while we're at it, reform the voting body by relieving voters no longer connected to the game — the ones covering figure skating or golf — of their privilege. Expand the rolls to include broadcasters and more members of the electronic media with the requisite 10-year tenure.
16. Induct Marvin Miller and Curt Flood into the Hall of Fame, as well as Tim Raines. As executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982, Miller revolutionized the game, overseeing its biggest change since integration via the dismantling of the reserve clause and the dawn of free agency. Petty politics prevented him from receiving proper recognition during his lifetime, but as an honest reflection of the game's history, the institution is diminished without his inclusion and that of the also-deceased Flood, a seven-time Gold Glove winner who sacrificed his career to battle the reserve clause. As for Raines, thanks to an appreciation of advanced metrics such as WAR and JAWS, a growing share of voters understands that he was every bit as great as contemporary Tony Gwynn; his speed and plate discipline helped him produce as much value as the eight-time batting champion. Raines finally crossed the 50 percent threshold on the 2013 ballot — a strong indicator that he'll eventually be elected — but he should have his bronze plaque yesterday.
17. Let Vin Scully call the World Series. The beloved dean of baseball broadcasters has been calling Dodger games since 1950, but hasn't worked a World Series on either TV or radio since 1996. Now 85 years old, he has scaled back his travel significantly, but it would be a sheer delight to hear him call at least one more Fall Classic. Even Fox Sports play-by-play man Joe Buck is open to the idea.
18. Enhance the stats on every scoreboard and broadcast. Though our collective understanding of statistics has increased, many ballparks and broadcasts display only the simplest statistical information — the Triple Crown stats of batting average, home runs and RBIs — when a player comes to the plate. In our perfect world, we'd love to see on-base and slugging percentages, and even Wins Above Replacement included. Strikeout and walk percentages, and batting average on balls in play for pitchers, too, please.
19. Stop the war on advanced statistics. In the decade since Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball, virtually every major league front office has incorporated advanced statistics into its decision-making processes. Alongside that, a growing faction of fans and media has come around to the idea that metrics such as Wins Above Replacement, Fielding Independent Pitching and Defensive Runs Saved — not to mention the flood of data produced by PITCHf/x — can free us from hoary, incorrect assumptions, increasing our knowledge and appreciation of the game. Yet a false dichotomy exists, whether framed as old media versus new, insiders versus outsiders, or scouts versus statheads. Particularly in the media, the dialogue is shrill, the narratives tortured beyond recognition. We all love baseball, and there's more than enough room for everyone to coexist peacefully.
20. More tacos at ballparks, and better beer, too. This is basic common sense — baseball with beer and tacos is the three-run homer of combinations. Every ballpark should spice things up by featuring an abundance of quality taco options for meat-lovers, vegetarians, even vegans, because unlike the mystery meat in those scary, processed hot dogs, you can see what's filling that tortilla. Accompany that by putting better beer on tap as well, ideally, locally produced brews reflecting the craft beer revolution. The Giants' AT&T Park, which features local Anchor Brewing Co. stands as well as an all-star lineup at the Public House bar, is an exemplar befitting a World Series champion. This article has been updated to include Kauffman Stadium in item 11.