The schedule: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

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I hate feeling like an old man. I hate arguing for the status quo. But lately I feel sort of obligated to, at least when it comes to baseball’s schedule.

Some rainouts, cancelled games, fatigued players and an offhand comment or two by Rob Manfred have led much of the baseball commentariat to argue for radical changes to the schedule lately. No fewer than three ESPN pundits — Buster Olney, Jayson Stark and Jerry Crasnick — have written columns in favor of going back to a 154-game schedule in the past couple of weeks. It’s almost as if there was a central editorial directive from ESPN about that. Heck, maybe there was.

Not to be outdone, today Ken Rosenthal argues in favor of a split schedule. Specifically:

* The AL and NL teams with the best overall records in each half would qualify for at least the wild-card game.

* The division winners after 162 games would qualify for the Division Series.

* If either wild-card qualifier won its division, the team with the next-best record over 162 games would go to the wild-card game.

The idea: to create, in effect, two pennant races. Or, to use Rosenthal’s words, “creating September-like urgency throughout the season and giving teams that stink in the first half the chance to start anew in the second.”

An interesting idea in the abstract — any idea can be interesting in the abstract, and discussing it does no harm — but it’s one that is not at all needed. It’s a solution in search of a problem, really.

Now, to be sure, Rosenthal attempts to identify problems this would solve, but his arguments are not convincing. He cites Bud Selig’s old quote about many teams not having “hope and faith,” and arguing that this would give more of that to more teams, but it’s a reference taken way, way out of context. Selig offered those words in service of a disingenuous argument about competitive imbalance well over a decade ago, at a time when the owners were still trying to impose a salary cap. Today we have some pretty crazy parity and even the owners have given up that old line about teams not having hope.

Mostly, though, his argument is not about solving any problems, it’s about change for the sake of change.  He cites how injuries can derail a team early, but that’s been a part of the game forever, not some new problem that needs to be solved. He notes that you could have two trade deadlines and two pennant races and how you could add weight to the games currently played. That’s all true, probably, but is it anything people are clamoring for? Should the mindset with respect to the structure of the game be “if we can do it we should try it!” or should it be “we should change it only when its clearly desirable and necessary?”

I’m not some hardcore purist who thinks that the game should be forever the same, but I do think that fundamental changes to the game’s structure should only be instituted if and only if it solves a clear problem or if it promises a truly compelling improvement. In this case — and in the case of ESPN’s recent fixation on a 154-game schedule –I see neither. What it does is sacrifice what has been baseball’s central feature since the game began– the summer-long pennant race — and chucks it because, hey, more is better.

Tweak here and there and experiment with this and that all you want. I won’t mind. But if you’re going to radically change the very essence of the game, you had better come with something stronger than “this could be neat.”