Field of Bad Dreams: Ownership's Assault on Major League Baseball

During the dog days of the summer of 1966, that venerable Connecticut journalistic warhorse, the Hartford Courant, provided a valuable public service every morning. On the front page of the Sports section, the paper featured updated baseball standings (and the previous night’s results) in large type-face. Back before the internet, before cable television and weeknight game broadcasts, Hartford-area baseball fans who couldn’t stay up to catch the final five-minute segment of the obligatory 11:00 local “News-Weather-Sports” show (with Bob Steele) would grab the Courant first thing each morning and race to see how their beloved (albeit hapless) Yankees or Red Sox had performed the night before.


But most Sunday mornings were special. On those particular weekend days, the Courant would feature not just the regular standings, but a pair of elaborate matrices that showed how each team had performed against every other team thus far in the season. With a quick glance, you could get a read on your team’s successes and failures, check in on longstanding rivalries, identify unusual or interesting trends, and extrapolate exactly which games were yet to be played. In other words, each grid provided a precise schematic overview of the entire season, effortlessly represented through a simple design of numbers, rows, and columns.



But more than anything, these matrices illustrated the wonderful, glorious, mathematical symmetry of the baseball season. Each team played every other team the exact same number of games (i.e., 18), with half of them played at each team’s home ballpark. And each league, boasting a nice round number of ten teams, was hermetically sealed off from the other during the entire 162-game season, until the World Series finally pitted the respective pennant-holders against each other like a long-awaited battle of the titans. Because of this, every season unfolded like a carefully engineered laboratory study, a perfectly designed empirical experiment to see which teams really were the best in their respective leagues, and then which of the two champions would ultimately prevail. In fact, this symmetry was deemed so important, so necessary to the integrity of the baseball season, that when Major League Baseball expanded from eight to ten teams in 1961 and 1962, they switched from the longstanding 154-game season (where each team played every other team 22 times) to the now familiar 162 games. Of course, the effects of this rippled through everything from scheduling and travel, to salaries and facilities maintenance, and it gave rise to a quirky year when one league expanded while the other had not yet done so, but these were all small prices to pay in order to preserve the primal equilibrium of the baseball season.


And by the way, this symmetry extended to the game itself, and not only with regard to the beautiful design of the diamond, baselines, and foul poles. Every player had a spot in the batting order, and also a spot on the field. Every team fielded nine players, and every game featured nine innings, so that with three outs per inning (and three strikes per out), every player was guaranteed to come to the plate (or was at least scheduled to come to the plate) three times. While some rules often came off as arbitrary or nonsensical (like the bunted third strike, or regulations regarding ambidextrous pitchers), baseball maintained a coherent and consistent inner logic, right down to the caught foul tip on the third strike. Baseball, someone once said, was “the one constant through all the years.”


Unfortunately, not too long after the Courant published matrices like the one above, a succession of opportunistic powers-that-be began the process of dismantling “all that was once good” about the game. It began with a pair of attacks on the game’s symmetry, and has continued into far worse places.


A HOUSE DIVIDED:


In 1969, MLB embarked on a second round of expansion, adding two teams to each league. Fine, let them expand. But then some genius also got the idea that they could generate more revenue by slicing each league into two “divisions,” which would theoretically increase the number of teams in contention during the pennant races and expand/extend the postseason into more markets and more games. Now, the divisions would be neither fish nor fowl (fair nor foul?), i.e., neither fully part of the same league nor fully separate from each other. In order to make the divisions somewhat separate while maintaining a bare semblance of symmetry, each team would play teams in its own division 18 times, but play those in the other division 12 times, with the respective winners entering a playoff series before the actual World Series. The major implication of this was that you could never really know which team was the best in each league. One thing for certain, though, the best National League team in 1973 wasn’t the New York Mets, who limped their way to a division title with an 82-79 record but somehow still made it to the Series. There’s nothing quite like having the fourth (quite nearly the fifth) best record in a league of 12 teams claim to be league champions. If it’s not immediately obvious how stupid such a scenario was, imagine a high school class of 500 seniors, where the valedictory honors went to the student who boasted the 184th highest GPA, but somehow won a spelling bee the week after graduation. Actually, that’s not far off from the current state of public education, but that’s another story.


If the new system was almost tolerable, each subsequent expansion would muck things up in increasingly comical ways. In 1977, the American League expanded to 14 teams, with 7 in each division, presenting a mathematical conundrum for those trying to preserve the now sacrosanct 162-game season. There was simply no way anyone could get the numbers to work while maintaining the bare necessities: 1) each team playing every other team in its division the same number of times, 2) each team playing teams in the other division the same number of times, 3) teams playing the teams in their own division more than they play teams in the other division, and 4) each team playing every other team an even number of games, so they could evenly divide home field advantage. The best solution they could manufacture – and this is of course using the term “best” imaginatively – is to have each team play teams in their own division 13 times, and play teams in the other division 12 times. The first obvious problem with such a “solution” was the odd number of in-division games, which the league never really publicly acknowledged but attempted to remedy sub rosa, presumably by granting the “extra” home game to teams through some ad hoc mishmash of coin tosses, turn-taking, and/or combined shlong sizes. The other and perhaps even more emperor-has-no-clothes problem was that each team played every other team in the league almost the exact same number of times, effectively rendering the division system meaningless. They could have assigned teams to divisions based on where the first letters of their respective names appeared in the alphabet, or by how many Italians each team had on its roster, or by the sizes of their respective payrolls (or shlongs). Any of those criteria would have been just as arbitrary as the east/west separation when they basically play one another the same number of times! And with this 1977 expansion, MLB pretty much gave up even the slightest pretense of maintaining symmetry in either the schedules or structures of the divisions. As if to flaunt this proud dyscalculia, they kept the leagues out of balance – 14 teams in AL, 12 in the NL – for the next 15 years, with each league maintaining its own slapdash illogic, until the National League expanded to 14 teams in 1993. Now, at least both leagues had the same number of teams . . . and the same indefensible schedules.


And that pretty much opened the floodgates to one ridiculous change after another, each one further damaging baseball’s primal symmetry, and further damaging whatever few micrograms of integrity the owners had left. In 1994, the year after the two leagues reached 14-team parity, MLB decided to slice and dice each league into three divisions. Yes, yes, the Toteboard knows that 14 is not a multiple of 3, but apparently MLB figured that if they just carved each league into two 5-team divisions and one 4-team division, and acted, well, you know, real nonchalant about it, perhaps no one would notice. As for the balanced schedule, that pretty much went the way of disco, cabbage patch kids, and big hair. I mean, you try to work out the math with out-of-kilter divisions – it just can’t be done, and MLB barely feigned an anemic nod in that direction. To make matters worse (is that even possible?), the league also introduced the loathsome “wild card teams,” enabling the possibility that you didn’t even have to win your division (of 4 crummy teams!) to make it into and even win the so-called World Series. In 1968, 10% of the teams in each league entered the post-season. In 1994, 27% of the teams in each league could delude themselves into thinking they had earned a trip to the playoffs. By last year, the owners had ginned it up to 33%, and they’re currently pushing the Players’ Union to go along with a jaw-dropping sixteen teams in the post-season, meaning that 53% of the teams could each try to earn the title of “best” after puttering through a six-month season and then winning an extended round of lightning fill-in-the-blank or final jeopardy. And with all due respect to a fine and noble institution, major league baseball is not the Special Olympics, though it is getting to the point that just about everyone gets a trophy.


If this presents you with the impression that this asinine realignment and post-season hemorrhaging marked a crossing of the Rubicon, you can rest assured that the owners never looked back for an instant and gave nary a second thought about the consequences of all the chaos they inflicted on the game. The coming years saw the addition of still more wild-card teams to the post-season, teams changing their divisions or leagues willy-nilly, and the introduction of that final death knell to baseball’s beautiful symmetry: inter-league play. It’s no exaggeration to note that in this perverse New World Order, you really never knew which team was going to play which other teams, how many times they were going to do so, and where those games would be played, until they actually announced the schedule at the beginning of the year. The Braves might host the Yankees for three games one year, or maybe only two, or maybe those games would be played in New York, or maybe it would be the Red Sox instead, or maybe (inexplicably) the Seattle Mariners. They might play the Reds 6 times, and the Cubs 8 times, but only this year. And then after all of the endless rounds of playoffs, the respective “champions” of each league would square off for the first time all season . . . . unless they had actually played three games back in April. It’s certainly a far cry from the Courant’s perfectly balanced matrices. In fact, it’s all a fucking joke. But the Toteboard isn’t laughing. Actually, the idea that this whole system is somehow fair is another one of the great public fictions foisted on the American people.


ALL ONE THING, OR ALL THE OTHER:


In 1973, the American League gray-suits decided to uproot the self-evident truth of baseball that players should prove themselves both on the field and with the bat, i.e., that nine players should take the field, and the same nine players should come to bat. This premise was so elemental, so axiomatic, to the game, that it was easy to dismiss periodic chatter about a permanent pinch-hitter for the pitcher as the idle ramblings of conspiracy theorists and pine-tar fetishists with too much time on their hands. But suddenly, the league turned fiction into reality, turned fair into foul, and undid what was arguably the single-most defining aspect of baseball’s in-game symmetry. It also, with one swing of the bat (so to speak), pretty much did away with sacrifice bunts, pinch hitting, small-ball, double-switches, strategic bullpen and bench management, and the kind of drama that came with young Braves pitcher Max Fried’s electrifying extra-inning pinch-hit walk-off RBI single last year. And this is not to mention all the catch-up rules they had to hastily assemble for spring training, post-season, minor league, and inter-league games, as well as those times when a team suddenly decides that it needs that permanent pinch hitter to take a spot on the field. And while the Toteboard does not normally lapse into linguistic determination, there’s no better sign of how stupid the concept is than that it took years of discussion and minor-league test-runs before they could even figure out what to call the damn thing. Eventually, “designated pinch hitter” gave way to the slightly less cumbersome “designated hitter,” and eventually to the better-known abbreviation “DH.” At least this would indirectly inform the now de rigueur vernacular of the “designated driver.”


If rules are judged by the company they keep, then there’s really no better retroactive argument against the DH than the simple fact that the rule change’s most vociferous promoter was Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley. Half clownish buffoon, half ruthless schemer, Finley was a big advocate of luring in fans through one-time stunts and extended gimmicks, like assigning players random nicknames and concocting apocryphal stories to justify them (e.g., Jim “Catfish” Hunter), or offering bonuses to players and coaches if they grew (and kept) moustaches, the latter of which may have been a subconscious nod to both the Bay Area hippie culture and the “House of David,” an obscure (and truly odd) morsel of baseball history (ace reliever Rollie Fingers reportedly still sports his trademark Snidely Whiplash handlebar curlicue). Finley’s proposed innovations ranged from serviceable (like scheduling World Series game during prime time) to harmless (bright colored uniforms) to ludicrous (orange baseballs), though he never stooped as low (literally) as Bill Veeck did with his Eddie Gaedel stunt. Finley was also occasionally right for the wrong reason, sometimes a very wrong reason. A few years before selling the league on the DH, he was the first owner to employ ball-girls, claiming that he “wanted to get the female interested in baseball,” and he went about accomplishing that the obvious way, i.e., by dressing the teenage girls in tight shorts and knee-socks, and having them deliver lemonade and cookies to the umpires between innings (one of the girls was actually the future Mrs. Fields of cookie fame). If Finley was intent on turning baseball into a circus, he was eminently successful, and his whacko legacy lives on in the DH.


A MERE RIGHT OF PROPERTY


It’s worth noting that none of these changes – not the added divisions and extended post-season, not inter-league play, not the designated hitter – had anything whatsoever to do with that well-trodden phrase, “the best interests of baseball.” Ron Blomberg, the man who has gone down in history as the first designated hitter ever, thanks to an accidental confluence of scheduling and a productive Yankee first inning against the Red Sox, said it best when he described the DH as “a rule born from ownership greed.” Granted, some of these innovations may have made baseball more popular, at least in the short-term, but popularity is hardly the same thing as quality, to which a quick glance at television news programs, fast-food menus, and Kim Kardashian would easily attest. I mean, think of how it would have increased fan attendance and enthusiasm if Finley had tried to employ topless ball-girls. None of this shit actually improves the game – but it does put more spending money in owners’ pockets.


It's actually no coincidence that most of these detrimental moves began after the purging of MLB’s last true commissioner, Fay Vincent, who had his peccadilloes but generally worked to preserve the game’s integrity. Since the days of Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the office had been conceived as sort of a cross between an oversight committee and independent judiciary, indebted to neither the owners nor the players, with virtually unlimited power to act unilaterally in the interests of the game itself. While it hadn’t always worked that way in actual practice – Ford Frick used the office to grant expansion dibs to the NL, and to defend Babe Ruth’s home-run legacy against upstart challengers – the various commissioners probably got it more right than wrong over the years, like when Happy Chandler supported Branch Rickey’s decision to integrate the Dodgers (against the objections of every other team owner), and when Bart Giamatti permanently tossed Pete Rose out on his lying, gambling ass. But after the owners got rid of Vincent, they co-opted the office of commissioner and have since stocked it with one of their own. It’s not quite clear which metaphor is most operative here – the fox guarding the henhouse, the gargoyles taking over the cathedral, or the lunatics running the asylum – but what is clear is that in the three post-Vincent decades, the subsequent commissioners have been dutiful implementers of ownership’s economic interests, while abdicating when it came to any matters of quality control. And so, MLB “leadership” practically enabled the steroid era, barely clicked their tongues when pitchers turned the application of foreign substances into an art form, and snoozed through the cheating scandal that gave world series rings to the Houston Asterisks, only registering shock whenever the shit hit the fan and the bad publicity threatened their box offices. And with most teams now owned by faceless, multi-billion-dollar conglomerates, it’s pretty fair to say that all the people running those conglomerates care about is putting fannies in seats. Actually, the irony is not lost on the Toteboard that a bunch of assholes spend so much time thinking about fannies.


Incidentally, Ron Blomberg’s fortuitous appearance as the first designated hitter wasn’t actually the first time he inadvertently benefited from ownership greed. While Blomberg was still a hard-hitting minor-league prospect, Yankee management fast-tracked him into the majors, with the hope that he would have some cachet with the heavily Jewish New York audience. This was not a problem in and of itself, but Blomberg’s rise almost certainly came at the expense of one-time top prospect Tony Solaita, who to this day is still the only major league player ever to hail from American Samoa. Perhaps because he didn’t have any built-in constituencies – there wasn’t much of an American Samoan presence in New York or other baseball cities in the 1970’s – Solaita never received the push he deserved and knocked around various teams in a back-up capacity before he finally disappeared to play ball in Japan, where he did finally establish himself as a prodigious (though hot-tempered) slugger. For his part, Blomberg always maintained a good sense of humor about how circumstances had conspired in his favor. Combining his two claims to fame, Blomberg styled himself the “Designated Hebrew.”


WHITHER WE ARE TENDING


During the last season before the baseball expansion first split the leagues into divisions, i.e., the last year the Hartford Courant could feature those wonderful symmetric matrices, that other great publication of the era, Mad Magazine, offered up “A Nostalgic Look at Sandlot Baseball,” which followed the exploits of one good-natured (albeit maladroit) youngster who joined a neighborhood pick-up baseball game despite the protestations of his more coordinated peers. In one delightful moment, the boy somehow manages to put some wood on the ball – calling it a “hit” would be overly generous – and he scrambles to first base (i.e., a tree), sliding in safely under a throw that sails over the first baseman’s head and disappears into the bushes. As expected, the boy cheerfully runs toward second base, bat still in hand, but then creates a ruckus – or rather, a “rhubarb,” using the correct lingua franca – as he makes his way toward third (another boy’s dog, unless he moves). A voice from out-of-frame calls out, “Hey! No fair! Only one base on an overthrow!” which is answered by another voice calling out, “Aw, those are girl’s rules!” (sic).



While such a comment today might result in public censure or loss of livelihood, despite the fact that the strip was making fun of the boys who used the phrase (rather than any females who might play according to their own rubrics), the silly invocation of “girls rules” may strike a familiar chord with any true game or sport purist. Yes, gendered rules, or at least vestiges of them, do in fact exist in some sports, like the “ladies’ tee” in golf, but that’s not really what this is referencing. Rather, it’s talking about the flexible bending of rules to accommodate perceived complications, often done to make games less adversarial and more cooperative, especially for children (though Carol Gilligan has suggested that openness to such adaptations may actually be gendered). You know, like letting someone peruse the dictionary before putting down tiles (or eliminating penalties for incorrect spellings) in Scrabble, or forgiving a player the first time for not saying “Uno” quickly enough, or using “warmer” and “cooler” in variants of Hide and Seek, or allowing “takeovers” in any game because a player wasn’t ready, got distracted by something, or looked like he or she might start crying. This can also refer to rules or even conditions added to spice up a game that less knowledgeable participants perceive as “boring” or “slow,” like interjecting an abundance of wild cards into a poker game, saturating a bowling alley with disco lights, or prefacing just about any game with the word “strip.” For the parent trying to keep one’s kids entertained and cheerful, this is all no big deal (except for maybe the “strip” part). But for someone who values real competition, someone who values the integrity of a sport or game and approaches it as an occasion to test oneself, an occasion to seek an I-Thou relation with one’s teammates, opponents, and the game itself, what those sandlot boys are calling “girls rules” do undercut the real joy of the game. And sometimes they’re just plain dumb.


So as the MLB brain-trust decimates the game through structural changes like inter-league play and elongated post-seasons, they are also micro-managing the game into a depressing satire of itself. Recent years have seen the introduction of the automatic intentional walk, a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers (unless they suffer a stroke or something), restraints on when position-players can pitch, and the most embarrassing sandlot “girls rule” of all, i.e., the automatic runner on second-base during extra innings. And there’s more of this stuff in the works, currently incubating in the minor leagues on a “trial basis,” though recent history has demonstrated that these are more dress rehearsals than trial runs. Get ready for the introduction of robot home-plate umpires, “ghost wins” in early playoff rounds, and limitations on defensive shifts, the last of which may truly kill the game as it restricts strategic agency on the diamond and pretty much publicly announces that batters are too big and dumb to adjust to smart defense. What’s next, instituting maximum pitch speeds or banning curveballs because players can’t him them? Bonus bases for runners who can chug a beer before a ball lands? Throw in pitch clocks, limited mound visits, bigger bases, and it’s starting to seem like they’re just making this shit up as they’re going along. You can probably get more internal coherence in a game of fizzbin. The owners, of course, claim that these changes are all necessary to make the game more appealing to their young target audience, whose diploma-mill educations and incessant smart-phone use have turned their brains to porridge, but that’s a pretty hard sell. We’re talking about a cadre of billionaires who for decades have engaged in collusion, duplicity, and outright lying – not to mention their Alfred E. Neuman approach to years of scandals – and who somehow still have the balls to claim the moral high ground as they systematically sabotage talks with the Players Association. Those fother-muckers would trade their own grandmothers for a pack of baseball cards.


And so here we are, in the midst of a cancelled spring training, with the promise of little more than a shortened season and a badly damaged sport. As labor negotiations drag on, the players will no doubt continue to assert their own interests over and against those of ownership, but the Toteboard has no idea what it will really take, as Abraham Lincoln said in one of his most famous speeches, “to meet and overthrow the power of that dynasty.”