By Bob Nightengale |
Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz watches baseball every day, talks about it virtually every day, sits in a broadcast booth and TV studio every week, and can’t stand what he’s seeing.
He’s not just talking about all of the strikeouts, home runs, shifts and lack of action in today’s game.
He’s talking about the void of drama, where September used to signify actual pennant races, and not the slog before the regular season ends.
Here we are, with just 10 days remaining in the regular season, and outside of the NL West with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, no realistic suspense remains in any division race.
The American League wild card race has been over for months.
The only real drama is the National League wild card race between the NL West runner-up and the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals.
That’s it, folks.
Smoltz, the powerful Fox TV and MLB Network analyst, can no longer stay quiet about it, and as a member of Major League Baseball’s competition committee, he plans to voice his opinion loud and clear this winter.
Get ready, because Smoltz, one of the brightest minds in the game, is ready to propose changes that will dramatically overhaul the sport.
“I know change is coming, it has to come,’’ Smoltz tells USA TODAY Sports, “I just don’t know when. But we better hurry.’’
Smoltz wants to eliminate the shift (“I think it’s single-handedly killing the game), curtail the relentless use of relievers, stop the exploitation of the disabled list, but most of all, revolutionize the schedule.
Smoltz proposes that MLB adopt a split-season schedule, just as they do in the minor leagues, in a move that he believes will create dramatic division races again, reduce the number of teams tanking for draft picks, and make baseball great again in September.
It’s time, he says, for teams to go back to playing the same schedule, eliminate interleague play, dump the rival series, and have old-fashioned pennant races, doubling the pleasure with one in each half of the season.
“I don’t understand how a sport can play at least twice as many games as any other,’’ Smoltz says, “and not have the same schedule. It’s mind-boggling to me.
“Don’t play interleague leagues. Don’t choose rivalries. Don’t manipulate the schedule. Just play everyone the same.’’
And do it with a split-season schedule, as they did the summer of 1981 after the baseball strike.
“The way it is now, 75% of teams leave spring training with no chance to win, and no desire to win so they can build for the future,’’ Smoltz says. “You look at the American League, it’s self-sufficient on four teams. We have no races.
“I would like to see a first-half and second-half scenario. I know people would roll their eyes at it, but it works in the minor leagues, and it would work in the big leagues. It would create so much more interest.’’
If MLB adopted Smoltz’s proposal, the Oakland A’s, 35-19 since the All-Star break, would win the second half, and play the Houston Astros in a best-of-three series at the end of the regular season to determine the AL West winner. The Tampa Bay Rays, 35-19 since the break, but out of the playoffs, would now be playing the Boston Red Sox. The St. Louis Cardinals, in a desperate bid for a wild card berth, would be playing the Chicago Cubs. The Colorado Rockies would be leading the NL West and the Los Angeles Dodgers would be on the outside looking in.
Why, even a team like the Chicago White Sox, 26-30 since the break, would still be alive in the AL Central. Instead, the Cleveland Indians virtually were coronated with the division title in spring training.
If you’re good enough to win both halves of the season, you earn a first-round bye.
“What incentive now is there to win 110 games?’’ Smoltz said. “There’s no real advantage to the Boston Red Sox.’’
The biggest change, Smoltz believes, is that teams would no longer be so quick to wave the white flag. If they do have a lousy first half, there would be incentive to trade for players to start the second half instead of giving up. You would have two trading deadlines instead of just one. Who knows, teams might even start having their best prospects playing for them in September instead of sending them home for financial reasons.
“Teams can now compete in the second half instead of just dumping everybody,’’ Smoltz says. “How are you going to tell your fan base that you’re not going to try in the second half? Who says you can’t have a nice second half? You could see teams reconstructed and change philosophically.
“You would have trade deadlines that mean something instead of becoming a dumping station for teams. You look at Baltimore, they might have changed their philosophy. The Nationals wouldn’t have traded all of those pieces. It would change the way the game is played.’’
Certainly, there are flaws to the idea, Smoltz acknowledges. It’s quite possible that just like in 1981, when the Cincinnati Reds won the most games, it doesn’t guarantee a playoff berth. The Reds that season finished one-half game behind the Dodgers in the NL West the first half, and 1 ½ games behind the Astros in the second half, and sat home while the Dodgers won the World Series.
The schedule also would have to be reduced, at least to 154 games, to accommodate the split seasons and revised playoff format. And the last we checked, there’s no owner or player openly volunteering to take a pay cut.
Still, while baseball continues to talk about expanding to 32 teams, which likely would include realignment, it’s certainly an innovative idea worthy of discussion for a sport with struggling attendance. Baseball’s attendance is down 2.9 million from a year ago, averaging 28,597 fans a game, which will be the first time since 2003 it will be below 30,000 a game.
“If nothing else, this should give us something to think about,’’ Smoltz says. “If you think about it, what saved baseball the last two years is the last two [thrilling] World Series. That covered up a lot of weaknesses and flaws in the game.
“But the moment we get a clunker, all of those things will get exposed.
“We’ve got to get this game vibrant again. If we don’t, it’ll be unwatchable.’’