Baseball's unbalanced schedules don't lead to fair play

March 07, 2010|By Peter Schmuck

SARASOTA, Fla. — — It's not a new issue, but it will become more of an issue in Baltimore if Andy MacPhail succeeds in building the Orioles into a more formidable competitor in the American League East.

Both the current alignment of the American League and the unbalanced schedule that amplifies the economic imbalance in major league baseball have created an unforgiving landscape where - for the also-rans of the division - the horizon never seems to get any closer.

The Orioles aren't complaining, mind you, because they know how that would look, and it wouldn't do any good anyway, but they aren't the only ones who have noticed the inequities of a system that requires them to play almost a quarter of their regular-season schedule against the two highest-payroll teams in the American League and nearly half of it in the game's most competitively and economically unbalanced division.

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon wasn't complaining either when he pointed out last week that his team - theoretically - could play a total of 95 games against the other AL East teams this year, if you count preseason games, regular-season games and a hypothetical seven-game AL Championship Series against a division rival.

He was talking more about the strategic issues that come with that kind of intradivisional familiarity, but he could just as well have used it to illustrate the folly of such uneven distribution of talent and resources.

What I'm trying to say here is that the schedule is broken and it needs to be fixed, not just so the Orioles actually have a chance to make the playoffs if they improve substantially over the next few years, but also for the good of the entire sport.

I'm not breaking any ground here. This has been debated for years, but the reason the schedule discussion needs to start anew is because baseball commissioner Bud Selig recently opened the door to the possibility of real change with the formation of his 14-member "special committee for on-field matters" - a committee that includes MacPhail and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, in case you were worried that the interests of the Orioles might not be represented.

"There are no sacred cows," Selig said at the time. "Whatever they want to talk about, they will."

Which means everything is on the table? Even the schedule?

"The committee that the commissioner has set up is looking at a lot of things," said Katy Feeney, Major League Baseball's senior vice president for scheduling and club relations, in a telephone interview Friday. "The commissioner said everything would be discussed. In that sense, anything's possible, but all of the possible schedules and realignment ideas, everything has been looked at for a lot of years. There's not a whole lot out there that's new."

This is where it gets complicated. I just want a balanced schedule where everybody in each league plays everybody the same number of times. Feeney, who analyzes this kind of stuff for a living, knows that it's a lot more complicated than just booting up your scheduling software and clicking on the "balanced schedule" icon.

The real villain here is interleague play, which - in its current form - makes a balanced league schedule impractical and nearly impossible with the scheduling restrictions in the collective bargaining agreement. Selig might claim it's not a sacred cow, but it's pretty close.

Since nobody seems to be talking about getting rid of interleague play, or even reducing it, the chances of the Orioles and their fans getting a fairer deal anytime soon seem remote, but we can still dream of a schedule that works for everybody.

"No schedule makes everybody happy," Feeney said. "I haven't heard a lot of sentiment [about a balanced schedule]. People who have that sentiment have their reasons. When you get down to particulars, what are they willing to give up?"

Good question, since the Orioles play the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox too much, but get most of their biggest crowds when those two teams come to town.

You're going to hear more about this over the next few months. You might even hear some radical ideas such as a rolling realignment, where teams are moved among divisions on a temporary basis to achieve better parity. But right now, even with Selig declaring a new glasnost when it comes to on-field issues, it's hard to imagine Major League Baseball making any radical changes while it is making near-record revenue.

And, let's face it, the beauty of any scheduling format is in the eye of the beholder.

"The thing about the schedule," Feeney said, "is people get focused on their schedule. We have to create a schedule for 30 teams. Not just one team."

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out The Schmuck Stops Here at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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