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National Pastime Isn’t Past Its Prime; It Just Needs Facelift

Dave Kindred The Sporting News

Anyone wondering about baseball’s future should begin by asking if baseball has a future.

That’s easy: It does.

The game is the best game. There’s unique value in that. Building on that value, baseball can dominate the American sports scene.

But it can’t do it moving slowly, as if arthritic. It must move vigorously, as if athletic.

So …

Here are some suggestions:

Get a commissioner - and give him real power. For 50 years and more, the commissioner’s power has been a fiction sustained by owners eager to conceal the reality that they owned the commissioner.

The fiction worked so well that fans came to believe, mistakenly, that the commissioner acted in their best interests. So baseball should take advantage of that misbegotten goodwill by actually giving such power to a commissioner.

Bring on the DH in the National League. Yes, the DH robs intellectuals of the cerebral exercise they get deciding, “Can my doofus pitcher get down a bunt? Or should I send up somebody who knows which end of the bat to hold?” Yes, the DH renders obsolete the Einsteinian thought necessary to pull off a double-switch. To which anyone who understands $2 is more than $1 must say, “So what?” The DH makes the game more attractive to folks who buy tickets. Case closed.

Get rid of artificial turf. Red Smith once wrote, “Ninety feet between bases is the nearest to perfection that man has yet achieved.” The best shortstop still can throw out the fastest runner on a ball hit in the hole. But infielders have been forced deeper by ground balls rocketing off the concrete turf. Subtly, the game’s geometry is being distorted. Someone should do research on this before 90 feet becomes an imperfection.

Interleague play is a good start. But the future lies in realignment. Forget current N.L. and A.L. affiliations. Expand to 32 teams, arrange them geographically and divide them into The New A.L. and The New N.L.

As it works for football, it would work for baseball. Purists, traditionalists and other rockheads might balk. But no reasonable person can deny that baseball could profit from football’s example. For all its problems - most shared by baseball - the NFL is the best sports business organization of all time. Baseball erodes its future by presenting World Series games that end after midnight. But every year the Super Bowl more firmly fixes itself in the American psyche.

Now let’s deal in more detail with realignment, a subject taken up in The Sporting News by Leonard Koppett. As usual, Koppett’s analysis is clear, concise and correct. He writes that baseball’s new labor agreement suggests that baseball is moving away from two distinct leagues and toward a single, NFL-type entity.

He sees revenue-sharing by the 30 teams as the most important development in the agreement because it indicates a willingness by N.L. and A.L. owners to think in terms beyond their league’s parochial interests. And once such a willingness is established, Koppett argues, it is possible to move on to one-world thinking.

Here’s where it gets to be fun because we all can get out our maps and plan baseball’s 21st century look.

Two years ago, Kansas City Royals broadcaster Denny Matthews did just that. He found himself in a rain-delay conversation with his team’s chairman of the board and CEO, David Glass.

Matthews has been in Kansas City 29 years. He worked the I-70 World Series of 1985, the Royals against the St. Louis Cardinals. He said to Glass, “What would be neat is to have the Cardinals come in here on a regular basis.”

Soon enough, Matthews created one league with four eight-team divisions. In the doing, he kept division teams in the same time zone (reducing travel, limiting post-midnight TV). He took advantage of natural geographical rivalries (Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox). He revived traditional eight-team pennant races (112 games in the division, critical September series, no wild cards).

The Matthews divisions

Midwest - Cubs, White Sox, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minnesota, St. Louis and Texas.

West - Anaheim, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Colorado and Phoenix.

Northeast - Baltimore, Boston, Yankees, Mets, Montreal, Toronto, Philadelphia and Northern Virginia.

Southeast - Atlanta, Charlotte, Florida, Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit.

The rain-delay conversation so piqued David Glass’ interest that the Royals now are advocates of realignment. A January meeting of baseball owners revealed “a groundswell of support” by ‘a majority of teams at least willing to consider the idea, according to Royals President Mike Herman.

So Glass has been appointed one of eight committee members studying the possibility of realignment. That committee’s report is due back to owners by June 30.

Denny Matthews says, “Players would love it because it reduces travel. Fans would love it because it creates regional rivalries and gets games on television in prime time. Owners ought to love it because as it increases the fan base, it increases revenue.

“And now is a perfect time to do it. Baseball needs change.”

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