Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning during the regular season you’ll get a fresh, topical story to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
On Tuesday, The Athletic reported the NBA is considering implementing an in-season tournament that takes place separately from its regular season and postseason structure. American sports viewers may be unfamiliar with such a concept, but soccer fans know it well.
The most famous example is England’s FA Cup, an annual single-elimination tournament that features the country’s best professional clubs, which, considering the stature of English football, makes them some of the world’s best teams. It also includes “non-league” semi-professional teams composed of players who have to work second jobs to make a living.
The magic of the FA Cup, which consists of 14 rounds, lies in the premise that each of the 700-plus teams that participate could end up hoisting the trophy. In reality, no team outside of the top two divisions has ever done so, or even reached the final. But the opportunity is there.
I’m not sure such a concept would be especially compelling for American basketball, since the NBA has only one affiliated minor league level (The G League) and essentially uses college as its most robust training ground for the professional ranks. Where else are they going to draw teams from besides the G League? Your local YMCA? But I do know of another sport popular here in the U.S. that could properly make use of such an idea.
This sport has 120 teams across its top four minor-league levels, which were just decimated by a ruthless reduction in teams and could surely use an influx of cash. This sport is having trouble establishing many of its young stars as commercially marketable—partially because they’re buried away in the minors, away from the public eye, for a few years after they’re drafted. And this sport—crucially, from an entertainment perspective for this endeavor—has a penchant for unexpected results on any given day (just last week, the Pirates took two of three from the Dodgers).
I’m surprised the powers that be haven’t kicked the tires on this yet (though I’m far from the first person to pitch it). You would think Rob Manfred would take an easy win anywhere he could get one right now. And it really is just that, at least from the fan’s perspective.
Implementing a cup competition would open up the possibility of seeing the game’s prospects in MLB parks, playing against MLB players, and help start their hype train when they’re usually out of sight and out of mind for the casual fan. Conversely, it would bring MLB teams to iconic minor league parks. Imagine, say, a matchup between the Boston Red Sox and Durham Bulls at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home of the Blue Monster. The novelty factor of seeing the sport’s biggest stars play at some of the nation’s coziest minor league venues may be even more entertaining, as we saw with last year’s Field of Dreams game.
Speaking of that, how about having the newly constructed Field of Dreams stadium serve as the location for the championship game? That beauty should be used by MLB more than once per year. If we really wanna get crazy with it, the competition could include independent clubs and the Savannah Bananas. Imagine Shohei Ohtani playing Banana Ball! Even the random draw to determine matchups could be an event for fans to tune into on MLB Network. Let Portland Pickles mascot Dillon T. Pickle announce the results! (Teams would be blocked from playing against their minor league affiliates.)
There would be logistical issues to figure out. Baseball’s regular season already features 162 games. Even if the major league teams are given byes through the first couple of rounds and would only be required to navigate a six-game path to the finals, it could be difficult to find room in the schedule to fit those extra contests.
To that, I say: Shorten the regular season to 154 games. Or maybe just chop off a week or so of spring training and start the season earlier; cutting far more than that this spring didn’t seem to affect pitchers’ ability to build up their arms too much. Perhaps a reduced measure of both would do the trick. Then, once a month or so, have a collective off day for league play and use it for American Baseball Cup play, with another off day either before or after the cup game to ease travel concerns.
Side note: I initially thought a midseason tournament during an extended All-Star break could be an option, with the first few rounds between the lower-level teams taking place during the early part of the break and the latter rounds bringing in the MLB teams following the All-Star Game. But travel would be a nightmare if you want to give fans across the nation the opportunity to watch these games, and I don’t think there’s a potential host city with enough requisitely sized baseball venues to contest all the games in one metropolitan area. I suppose it’s possible if the All-Star break was something like two full weeks, but I prefer the concept of stretching this out on occasional Mondays from the spring to the fall. And broadcasters would love to bid on a full slate of elimination games throughout the year.
Some may argue an American Baseball Cup wouldn’t be necessary. One reason why these domestic cup tournaments are compelling in European soccer is because those leagues don’t have playoffs at the end of the season; whoever wins the de facto regular season is crowned champion. The single-elimination format provides some competitive variety and give teams other competitions in which to succeed, even if they’ve long been out of the running in the league.
But couldn’t we say the same about baseball? Wouldn’t it be nice for Reds fans to have a cup run to dream about this year to distract them from the team’s historically dreadful start to the season? Ultimately, a new competition with the potential to create fascinating underdog storylines and function as a showcase for the game’s future stars feels like something that should be explored.
To incentivize MLB players and teams to give the ABC the time of day it would so clearly deserve, dangle a cash prize of [insert obscenely large amount of money here] to be split among the winning players and a reward for the victorious team in the form of a competitive advantage. A first-round compensatory draft pick, perhaps?
MLB teams, players and fans just endured the most contentious labor negotiations in decades. With tensions between owners and the union still high, sorting out the finer details of this operation probably wouldn’t be a cake walk. But the end result would be sweet enough to seriously explore the possibility.
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