MLB: Throw out the schedule and turn 2020 into one big tournament

Craig Calcaterra

The shape of the 2020 Major League Baseball season doesn’t even make the top-100 list of things that matter at the moment, but it’s my bailiwick, so I’m thinking about it a lot right now. Thinking, mostly, about how it might look when it does, eventually, resume.

At the moment it’s almost impossible to imagine a season that resumes before Memorial Day and, more realistically, I think it’ll be much longer. Let’s say for a moment that teams don’t ramp up training again until June and the season can’t get started until July. What then?

One thing that makes no sense is to simply start the currently-existing schedule from where it would be on go-date. Mostly because it’d be unfair. I mean, the full schedule is already unfair given its unbalanced nature, with teams in different divisions competing for the Wild Cards and for playoff seeding while playing schedules of radically different strength compared to their competitors. If, say, the Athletics have half of their games against Houston lopped off but the Rays still have to play the Yankees a dozen times or more, you’re just exacerbating an already suboptimal situation.

One way to deal with that is to generate a new schedule, unbalanced or balanced, that begins at the new start date. Scheduling is super hard, though. The number of variables that go into it are massive. Logistics, travel patterns, avoiding various large events in certain cities such as concerts and political conventions whatnot are a lot to plan around, and that’s with months and months of advance work. When we figure out 2020’s go-date, we’re not going to have a ton of time to generate a coherent schedule and plan for it in all the ways it normally has to be planned for.

I don’t think we should even try. I think we should scrap the schedule entirely and do a Major League Baseball-wide Tournament. Brackets, baby.

There are any number of ways we could do this — round robin, single-elimination, double-elimination, you name it — and I’ll leave the choice of an optimal format up to bracketologists. But just for the sake of argument, let’s say that did a 30-team, single-elimination tournament. You could fo it as a blind draw, but again, for argument’s sake, let’s seed it, using last year’s overall records as the primary seeding criteria. Since we’d have to have two byes in the first round let’s give then to the Nationals and the Astros as last year’s World Series participants and do it like so:

My idea: you do nine-game series. Yeah, that’s a lot, but it’s less arbitrary than a short series. Besides, the World Series used to be nine games long back in the early 20th century, so it’s been done. The format for that back then was 2-3-2-2, giving the lower seed four games at home and the higher seed five.

Let’s say the 2020 season kicked off on the Fourth of July. If you did the nine-game series with traditional travel days it’d take 12 days to play a series. You could add a couple of travel days between locations and stagger the rounds a bit in order to make it all stretch out a bit more and to give players more rest. You could also give teams a few days off to rest between rounds and to allow MLB and the TV networks to hype up the next matchups. Add a mini-All-Star game in the middle of it all and you could probably make the whole season stretch into early October, which is when the old World Series used to end anyway.

I’m not married to this, of course. You could get rid of the byes or change the seeding in any number of ways. Or, like I said above, you could make it a double-elimination tournament or a round robin or something in order to prevent the fans of Team A from getting tired of watching Team B for nearly two weeks. I don’t really care. I’m just trying to think outside the box and give us something to make what’s left of this ravaged season kind of exciting.

And, in some ways, I’m trying to think of how we might do something a bit deeper and more symbolic with baseball than merely play out the season. Something that, if I may be a bit dramatic for a moment, might serve as a good example for the rest of our disrupted society.

Yesterday I spent some time thinking about what might change in our post-pandemic existence. I wrote a little bit about it here. The short version is that, like most major events in human existence, the changes will likely be unexpected. Things that may even go undetected at first but which, later, we look back on and say “oh yeah, we used to do that.” For example, in 1995 the O.J. Simpson trial was on TV every afternoon, causing everyone who used to watch soap operas to stop watching them for a while. They came back, but they were less popular due to scripted drama being unable to compete with real life drama. From then on judge shows, talk shows, and true crime things rose in prominence, basically killing the soap opera as the dominant daytime TV format. Our habits changed for a few months and, subsequently, so did our preferences and expectations.

Whatever happens with the baseball season this year, it’s going to be different. It could be radically different if people go with ideas like mine. At the very least there will be a lot of changes, unlike we’ve ever seen in the history of the game. The length of the season. The nature of the season. Possibly even the nature of the playoffs. The one thing people won’t be able to do is to insist upon strict adherence to tradition, as traditional baseball will be impossible in 2020.

That might be startling to some, but it’s also an amazing opportunity.

When Rob Manfred comes out with some harebrained idea or rule change because, well, he simply wants to, he encounters a lot of pushback. It’s understandable. Why do this? Why do that? It’s unnecessary. But in 2020 a lot of changes are going to be necessary and we’ll get a chance to see how they impact the game we love. Some of them we may hate. Others, however, we may realize are actually pretty cool or even better than the way we did things before. Either way, we’ll be able to assess them without our well-earned disdain for Rob Manfred’s seemingly pointless meddling to color or view of it. We’ll have no choice but to look upon whatever happens with open eyes and an open mind.

The same goes for society at large, I suspect. A lot of disruption is already going down and, over the coming weeks and months, a lot more disruption is going to occur. It really sucks and, with a great deal of it, we’ll immediately snap back to our old ways of doing things once this has passed. Obviously I am not, for a moment, suggesting that another word for “pandemic” is “opportunity” or diminishing the physical, emotional and economic suffering so many people are and will continue to go through here. That’d be crazy.

But when it comes to the less-significant things, we may encounter at least some improvements. Or at least changes we don’t hate in the aggregate and which some of us truly take to. Maybe we realize more people can work from home than previously thought. Maybe film studios start to release more things direct-to-streaming. Maybe more people learn to cook or realize that, actually, nightclubs are kinda terrible. Maybe, more significantly, this is the tipping point for more people being open to radical policy changes related to healthcare or changes to our labor or economic system. I have no idea. I’m just spitballing.

But I do know that tradition and inertia are powerful forces. We usually don’t overcome them unless there is no option. In a lot of ways, we have no option but to set aside tradition now. In baseball and, in many respects, life as a whole. It’s not ideal, obviously. No one would ever wish for that which we are currently going through for any reason. Indeed, if I could snap my fingers and put us back to where we were a few months ago, I would.

That’s not going to happen, however. Things are going to change. We should do our best to appreciate those changes for what they. To make the best of a bad situation and ask ourselves if, in light of this bad situation, there isn’t anything we might learn. Or if, perhaps, if there isn’t a better way to do things. Both the small things and the big things.