And While We're At It ... Achieving labor peace is only the first step. Here are 14 other ways to help get the game back on track

August 04, 2002

1. Bring in Nolan Ryan as the new commissioner

Bud Selig is a brilliant speaker of the house, but he's not cut
from presidential cloth. He has yet to substantially improve the
owners' relationship with the players, he engenders little trust
from fans, and he has been unable to communicate a clear vision
for the game. His apparent conflict of interest, given his
ownership in trust of the Milwaukee Brewers, has been
problematic from Day One.

That said, no owner puts in more sweat equity or understands all
the issues in the game better than Selig. He's a valuable member
of ownership's team, so he should be named chief executive
officer of baseball and continue to work the phones from
Milwaukee, where he masterfully educates and unifies the owners.

What baseball needs is a new leader who provides an unassailable
presence on both sides of the labor fence and who also inspires
confidence from fans. We've seen the endorsements for
accomplished men of public service such as Bill Clinton, Mario
Cuomo and Rudy Giuliani, but do we really want a career
politician with an outsider's perspective running the game? No,
we want someone who has baseball in his blood and in his soul.
We want someone who knows what it means to be a player, an owner
and a fan. We want Nolan Ryan.

Ryan's credentials are impeccable, and no one in the sport is
more widely admired. He not only was a Hall of Fame pitcher but
also has been successful in the banking business, having started
up The Express Bank in Alvin, Texas, and as part owner of the
Double A team Round Rock (Texas) Express; he hopes to bring
another minor league team to Corpus Christi.

Selig would continue to do much of the spadework, but Ryan has
the presence and perspective that the commissionership demands.
For instance, he might not be the person to close a complicated
labor deal, but he can spend the four or five years leading up to
negotiations establishing a respectful partnership with the
players that would make a deal easier to reach. He has shown in
Round Rock--where he's a regular around town and at the
ballpark--that he understands how to reach out to fans.

By the way, if Selig can move the commissioner's office to
Milwaukee, Ryan is more than welcome to work out of his Refugio,
Texas, home.

2. Make a day at the ballpark more family-friendly

For starters, offer ticket packages that families can comfortably afford. Though attendance is down for the third straight season,
ticket prices over the past five years have increased by 35%, a
higher rate than in the NFL and NBA. According to Team Marketing
Report, a family of four spends an average of $145.26 to attend a
major league game, a 67.5% increase from 10 years ago. Every team
should learn from the Minnesota Twins, who offer a $44 Saturday
night family ticket package that includes four outfield seats and
$25 worth of food and drinks. The Twins have sold more than 45,000
such tickets this season.

Major league teams should also follow the lead of their minor
league affiliates, who specialize in family-oriented promotions
such as pregame batting practice for fans (Salt Lake Stingers)
and on-field clinics (Eugene Emeralds).

3. Eliminate baseball's antitrust exemption

No other sport enjoys this archaic exemption, one that permits
major league owners to act as a monopoly. For instance, a free
market--not a cartel of owners--should determine where major
league and affiliated minor league baseball is played. The New
York Mets once flexed their territorial muscles by preventing a
Long Island town 50 miles away from getting a minor league team.

The Washington/northern Virginia region would be more receptive
to a major league team than Montreal, but baseball doesn't want
to test the territorial rights of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter
Angelos. The Oakland Athletics would surely be more profitable in
San Jose, but the San Francisco Giants won't let them relocate
there.

Baseball's own Blue Ribbon Panel Report of 2000 even recommended
the concept of franchise relocation to "a very large market
already occupied by one or more high-revenue clubs." Such
relocation, the committee wrote, helps competitive balance
because the relocated club generates more revenues and the
existing club or clubs benefit from enhanced rivalries. In other
words, put a team in New Jersey or Brooklyn. The New York
metropolitan area supports three hockey teams. It can easily do
likewise with baseball.

4. Give new meaning to the All-Star Game

Award the league that wins the game home field advantage in the
World Series. We've heard the argument against that idea: For
the most part, players who wouldn't be in the World Series would
determine who got the extra home game. That would have some
validity if the home advantage were currently determined by even
a smidgen of merit. Now it's awarded simply on a rotating basis.
What once helped make baseball's All-Star Game the best such
exhibition in any sport was that the players cared about the
outcome. As it stands, starters regularly leave the premises
after one or two at bats.

5. Nix the nostalgia and try some modern marketing

Rick Burton, a sports-marketing professor at the University of
Oregon, tells his students the story of the Narragansett Brewing
Company, a Rhode Island beermaker that sold suds in New England
with the same folksy slogan--"Hi, neighbor, have a
Gansett!"--for decades before going out of business in the early
1980s. "They woke up one morning," says Burton, "and found that
all the neighbors were dead."

Baseball may be headed for its own Gansett moment, the day when
all its fans are dead--or, demographically speaking, might as well
be. "Sports have to reinvent themselves to make them relevant to
kids," Burton says. "Baseball continues to live in the past, both
with its operating methods and its efforts at marketing
nostalgia."

If baseball wants to get with the times and reinvigorate its
image, it has to quit telling us how great the game was and give
younger fans a reason to love it now. A dose of history is fine
now and then, but a blurry image of Willie Mays making an
over-the-shoulder catch is as thrilling to kids as Grandpa's
stories about movie tickets that once cost a nickel.

Instead, stir interest by demystifying the sport. Break down some
of the walls separating fans and players--and not only with
choreographed autograph sessions. Think little gestures don't
matter? Before one April game, Boston Red Sox players surprised
fans by greeting them at the gates of Fenway Park. Fans were
forbidden from asking for autographs (many did anyway), but the
city still buzzed over the event.

FanFest, the interactive exhibit and card-memorabilia show that
is held at the site of the All-Star Game each year, is always a
huge hit. A similar attraction should be a seasonlong fixture in
every major league city. And baseball should build on the
popularity of the kids-run-the-bases promotion that teams
occasionally offer after games by throwing open its doors before
games, on off days and during the off-season. "We treat baseball
stadiums like sacred temples that no one can enter unless the
priests are there," Burton says. "Get kids running around on the
fields, make them more public areas, use them as parks or sites
for clinics and camps."

6. Institute a competitive balance draft

Talent is the most valuable commodity in baseball, and, like
money, it needs to be shared. Each November the eight teams with
the highest revenues would protect 38 players on their roster,
rather than the traditional 40. The eight clubs with the lowest
revenues would be able to draft one unprotected player from
those rich ones. No team could lose more than one player. New
York Yankees outfield prospects Juan Rivera or Marcus Thames,
for instance, might get a chance to play every day for the
Pittsburgh Pirates. The draft would create hot-stove fan
interest and reward savvy organizations smart enough to unearth
the next Vinny Castilla or Trevor Hoffman, who were expansion
draft picks.

7. Launch an all-baseball digital TV channel

ESPN is baseball's de facto television home, but Major League
Baseball should develop an in-house channel akin to NBA TV, the
league's all-basketball digital-cable channel. For starters, an
MLB-owned-and-operated channel could offer comprehensive
highlight packages and live coverage of press conferences and
other events, as well as exclusive access to players, clubhouses
and the game's inner circle, which a privately held channel
cannot provide. In addition, placing the package on a digital
tier is easier than securing analog cable placement and would
open forward-looking avenues in TV commerce and interactivity,
an area that the league has managed well with Web-based features
such as Condensed Games and Custom Cuts packages (pay services
that assemble video highlights based on user preferences).

NBA TV, conceived on a similar model but also featuring live
coverage of 98 games per season, was worth $45 million to AOL
Time Warner (SI's parent company) for a 10% share and 25 cents
per customer to cable providers. Any venture that increases
baseball's total revenue pool would benefit competitive balance.
TV is a tough game to break into, but in the brave new
500-channel universe, where country music can sustain not one
but two channels, surely there's a place for the national pastime.

8. Level the playing field in Latin America

All teams should have an equal shot at Latin American prospects.
As the players' association has suggested, Major League
Baseball--not individual clubs--should operate Latin American
baseball academies, the boarding school-training centers for
prospects age 16 and up. For instance the Atlanta Braves, the Los
Angeles Dodgers, the Red Sox and the Yankees (high-revenue teams
all) currently operate first-rate academies in the Dominican
Republic, giving them an advantage in developing and signing the
best Latin American talent. Among the players who have come
through the Dodgers' Dominican academy, for example, are Pedro
Martinez, Ramon Martinez and Raul Mondesi. Some low-revenue
clubs, such as the Twins and the Pirates, have academies that are
far less plush, which inhibits their ability to recruit and sign
players. More equity in the distribution of Latin American talent
will help competitive balance.

9. Create a baseball World Cup tournament

What better way to bring intrigue to the game than a tournament
(six teams, double elimination, 10 days) with players
representing the U.S., Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic,
Venezuela and Japan plus an international squad (Australians,
Canadians, Koreans, etc.)? Cuba could be added if the political
situation can be resolved. The event would be held every other
year in the third week of March with the host city rotating
among Miami, Phoenix, San Juan, Santo Domingo, Caracas, Tokyo
and other venues such as Toronto. There's nothing like a little
nationalism to arouse interest, as the sport of soccer proves
every four years.

10. Assist small-market clubs in retaining their stars

Low-revenue teams deserve a fighting chance to retain the stars
they originally signed and developed--players who form the
foundation of fan loyalty--and to do that they need financial
assistance. The Kansas City Royals, for instance, could have used
such help in trying to re-sign outfielder Johnny Damon, whom they
traded to Oakland before last season in anticipation of losing
him to free agency. Damon subsequently signed a four-year, $31
million contract with the Red Sox.

Under what would be baseball's version of the NBA's Larry Bird
Exception, the Royals could have qualified for money from the
commissioner's discretionary fund. Any team in the lower half of
the revenue rankings would be eligible for funds to re-sign
players whom they had originally signed and developed and who
were eligible for free agency. The available money would be $3
million per year for each Type A free agent (the elite, as
established by the Elias Sports Bureau's statistical rankings),
$2 million for Type B and $1 million for Type C.

If such a system were in place this season, the Anaheim Angels
would qualify for funds to help retain outfielder Darin Erstad,
and the Royals would have had help in paying the five-year, $55
million extension that first baseman Mike Sweeney signed in
March.

11. Give pitchers a chance: Raise the mound

Over the past three decades a combination of factors--introduction
of the designated hitter, expansion, cozy new ballparks, an ever-changing strike zone, the proliferation of bodybuilding
supplements--has shifted the balance of power to the hitters.
There's no better evidence than the home run explosion that peaked
in 2000, with 2.34 homers and 10.28 runs per game (both alltime
highs). The surest, simplest way to shorten the pitchers' odds on getting shelled is to raise the height of the mound from 10 inches
to 12 1/2 inches. Why 12 1/2? The last time the game was seen as
being overly dominated by pitchers was in 1968, when the major
league average was .237 and games averaged 1.23 homers and 6.84
runs--and the mound was 15 inches high. We split the difference.

Every argument in favor of raising the mound has in recent years
been met with a single riposte: Fans love the long ball. But do
they? From 1988 through '94 there were 1.62 home runs per game,
and average attendance was 23,926. From '95 through '01 home runs
increased 35%, to 2.18 per game, while attendance was essentially
flat (25,180).

The moral: As homers have grown more commonplace, their ability
to attract fans has plateaued. All of which raises the question:
If prodigious sluggers are making a mockery of the game's
offensive records, and fans are evincing a been-there-done-that
attitude, why not raise the mound, at least on a three-year trial
basis? Who knows? Power pitching could be the next big thing.

12. Allow teams to trade their draft choices

Bad teams always wind up with something valuable after the
season: a high pick in the next amateur draft. Baseball,
however, doesn't allow teams--good or bad--to barter that
commodity for players, cash or additional picks. In the NFL, for
instance, the landmark Herschel Walker deal turned around the
Dallas Cowboys, who received three first-round picks and three
second-rounders plus five players from the Minnesota Vikings in
exchange for the former Heisman winner. Given the chance, a
downtrodden major league team could pull off a comparable coup.

13. Help clubs that don't sign their No. 1 picks

When the Philadelphia Phillies failed to sign their first-round
pick in the 1997 draft, prized outfielder J.D. Drew, they ended
up with nothing to show for a valuable piece of currency (the No.
2 pick) intended to help a bad team get better. The solution: Any
club that fails to sign its first-rounder gets that same pick
back in the next year's draft. Under this setup the Phillies
would have received a compensatory selection after the second
pick in the '98 draft (call it 2A) in addition to their regular
first-rounder that year. A team shouldn't be penalized if
negotiations with a draftee fall apart--and the player shouldn't
have all the leverage in those negotiations.

14. Limit interleague play to games that matter

Two weeks leading up to the All-Star break, or about 12
interleague games per team, are plenty. Too many of the games
are nothing special. Let the natural rivals play home-and-home
series annually (Mets-Yankees, Giants-A's, Cubs-White Sox,
Expos-Blue Jays, Marlins-Devil Rays, Phillies-Orioles,
Cardinals-Royals, Dodgers-Angels, Astros-Rangers, Reds-Indians).
The Braves played the Red Sox six times this year, for instance,
but they're not natural rivals. And do we really need the
Marlins-Royals series we got this season? Schedule all other
interleague games on a rotating basis.

Vote for your choice for baseball commissioner at
cnnsi.com/commish

THREE COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ALISON SEIFFER

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