REALIGNMENT Owners take fans' survey to bat in swing for change

February 17, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer Staff writer Mark Hyman contributed to this article.

Major League Baseball faces an uncertain future. More labor strife is on the horizon. Television revenues are soon to decline. The commissioner's office remains unoccupied. The sport is in a state of economic and political upheaval.

It is against this backdrop that the owners last year initiated a market research project to determine if the traditional format of the game is in need of an overhaul.

* How would you like to see the two leagues split into three divisions each instead of two and the playoffs expanded to include a wild-card team and an extra tier of games?

* How would you like to ride Amtrak to New York to see the Orioles play a regular-season series against the Mets?

* How about expanding the designated hitter rule to both leagues? Or abandoning it altogether?

Baseball ownership really wants to know, and the game's Schedule and Format Committee has been building a market profile with the help of an extensive survey that has been distributed to a large sampling of fans throughout the nation.

The preliminary results of that survey are being discussed -- along with a variety of other issues -- at a two-day owners meeting that began in Phoenix yesterday.

"There have been reports at the last two meetings on parts of the plan for soliciting fan input," Orioles president Larry Lucchino said recently. "It is a broad-based survey of fan attitudes and club attitudes."

The survey asks fans to evaluate a couple of new playoff options, give their opinions on geographic realignment and state their preferences on a number of lesser questions that could affect the marketing of the game. Nothing will be decided this week, but the owners likely will be presented today with some possibilities that could crystallize into major issues by the time the owners reassemble for their quarterly meeting at the same location in early March.

"It will carry a lot of weight," John Harrington, president of the Boston Red Sox and chairman of the format committee, said of the survey. "I don't think we want to run counter to fan interest. There is a strong feeling in the game [among owners] for making changes. I tend to think the survey will support those feelings."

The survey includes preference testing of interleague play, the DH and the starting times of games, but the most pressing questions concern the playoff format, which seems likely to be revamped soon.

It is not the first time that the majors have discussed changes in the basic format of the game -- the switch to divisional play in 1969 was a major break with tradition -- but it might be the first time that ownership has felt outside pressure to spice up its product.

It is no coincidence that the survey was undertaken as the owners began preparing for their next round of television negotiations. Faced with the prospect of giant payrolls and dwindling broadcast revenues, management is looking for ways to keep network fees from taking a dramatic downturn from baseball's soon-to-expire $1.06 billion contract with CBS and ESPN.

"I think that's part of it," Lucchino said, "but it's also an attempt to make the game more appealing. It's not simply a matter of improving the revenue base, but also of continuing to find ways to keep the game vibrant and enjoyable for a long time."

If Lucchino's comments reflect Major League Baseball's official party line, they do not necessarily reflect his opinion on the subject -- nor that of Orioles owner Eli Jacobs. The Orioles are one of the most conservative organizations in baseball when it comes to tinkering with the traditions of the sport.

Jacobs worked hard during the planning of Oriole Park to make sure the new stadium was a throwback to old-time baseball. It seems unlikely the Orioles would vote in favor of any radical plan to realign the clubs or redesign the postseason.

"Certainly we will keep an open mind," Lucchino said, "but I think it's well known that we at the Orioles believe in the traditional baseball values and the traditional appeal of the game. I know that is something that Eli Jacobs feels strongly about as do I and other members of the Baltimore Orioles organization."

Nevertheless, the meetings this week in Phoenix could lay the groundwork for a dramatic face lift that seems likely to include an extra tier of playoffs by the 1995 season. The survey presented fans includes a pair of new playoff scenarios -- both hybrids of the current postseason system that include aspects of the NFL playoff format.

The first option would call for the top two teams in each of the existing divisions to face each other in the first round of the playoffs, with the winners moving into the two league championship series. The second option would include the realignment of the two leagues into three divisions each, with the three division winners from each league and a wild-card team moving into a two-tiered playoff tournament.

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