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Three Strikes -- More NFL, relievers, Mac edition

1/25/2010

Strike One -- MLB vs. NFL Dept.

In case you missed my blog last week "proving" that the baseball postseason was more dramatic than the NFL postseason -- and still was, even if you factor in Sunday's fabulous Saints-Vikings game -- you can either review it here or take my word for it.

Hey, I knew that stand would inspire lots of indignant reaction from NFL fans (I'm one of them, by the way). And frankly, I'm going to ignore the portion of that reaction that came from knees and jerks.

But fortunately, I did get some actual intelligent responses via Twitter (where you can find me at @jaysonst). And I'm always up for a good intelligent debate. So here goes:

Start times: When I asked, in that provocative way of mine, whether anything about the NFL playoffs was better than the baseball postseason, Doug Klumpp (@dklumpp) made a bunch of excellent observations. One of his complaints was about baseball starting weekday playoff games at 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. (in the East) -- a development that does an excellent job of screwing up the lives of fans with day jobs.

Well, he's right about this, obviously. But a) that still beats the heck out of 1995, when baseball was insane enough to play all the Division Series games at the same time. And b) you see those start times, for the most part, on exactly two days in the entire postseason (i.e., the first two days of the Division Series).

You know, once upon a time, MLB envisioned those LDS days as being kind of like the first round of March Madness. And that's a fun, not always convenient concept, that millions of Americans accept gladly in March but not so gladly in October. So why hasn't that concept caught on in baseball? I think that's the sport's fault. Somebody page the marketing department. It's time MLB starts working harder to sell October Madness to the masses.

Too many days off: Klumpp also grumbled about the "ridiculous" number of off days in the baseball postseason. And while I could point out there are almost nothing but off days in the football postseason, where the Colts and Saints will wind up playing precisely three games in 35 days, my reply instead is:

He's right. Luckily, thanks to Mike Scioscia, I think that Bud Selig now agrees. There are going to be changes to the format as soon as this year -- FOX willing.

Short series: Klumpp's last complaint was that we've seen way too many four-game and five-game series lately during the World Series and LCS. And he's right about that, too.

I've documented several times that the recent demise of six-game and seven-game World Series seemed to coincide with the introduction of more October off days and the stretched out the postseason. So if the commish is successful in tightening up the postseason, I'm betting that will help lead to better (and longer) World Series. Stay tuned.

The "real" problem: Lastly, I made a case in my blog for how baseball has evened the parity gap with the NFL. And The Big Lead's always-thoughtful Jason McIntyre posted a response on his site that included a great argument: "It isn't about who wins titles -- it is about who reaches the postseason, where you have a chance to win a title. The playing field is level in the NFL; not so in MLB."

To prove his point, he linked to a study he did in 2008 that showed, essentially, that the more dollars you spend in baseball, the better chance you have of making the playoffs. And while I could respond by mentioning that only five of the top 15 spenders made the baseball playoffs just last fall, I'm not delusional enough to claim he's off-base with that theory, because he's not.

The baseball playing field ISN'T as level as the NFL playing field. That's reality. And that issue needs to be addressed in the next labor talks. But the last decade tells us that things are getting better -- way better -- thanks to the nearly half a billion dollars now being spread around every year by revenue sharing.

As I pointed out in my blog, more baseball teams (eight) won titles in the '00s than NFL teams (seven). And if you look closely at how many teams in each sport make the final fours of each postseason, it's amazing how similar these two sports have been:

So obviously, the two postseasons themselves are now playing out almost identically. But McIntyre's point is that football provides more teams with a chance to get to the postseason. And while he's accurate, he's also at least slightly misleading.

I didn't mention in last week's blog that 23 of the 30 teams in MLB made the playoffs in the '00s. And that doesn't match the NFL, where 29 of 32 teams got there. But I can't help but point out that more NFL teams are SUPPOSED to make it -- just because the NFL has 50 percent more playoff teams (12 to 8) every year. It's built into the system.

The fact is, only two baseball teams in the whole sport -- the Pirates and Orioles -- didn't contend somewhere along the line in the '00s. So while the system is still flawed, it's at least reached the point where it's fixable. Nevertheless, let me say thanks to Jason McIntyre and Doug Klumpp for raising some excellent, and valid, issues.

Strike Two -- It's A Relief Dept.

I also proposed, in last week in Rumblings & Grumblings, that it's time for baseball to add a new award for relief pitchers. So far, amazingly, I haven't gotten one negative e-mail or tweet on that idea. Not one.

But it doesn't matter what fans and readers think of that proposal. What matters is how my fellow members of the Baseball Writers Association of America react to it. And judging by the reactions on our BBWAA site, some of my cohorts aren't real enthused.

Those discussions, on that site, are private. But let me sum up three of the biggest objections raised already:

• If we add this award, I was told, we'd be watering down the magnitude of the other awards.

• I argued that we need a new award because relievers almost never win the MVP or Cy Young. The response I got was that the reason relievers don't win is simple: They're "not that important" compared to other players.

• Finally, I mentioned several billion times in that column that it's unfathomable that Mariano Rivera has never won any major award. But the skeptics point out that lots of other great players never won, either -- from Tony Gwynn and Roberto Alomar to Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield.

OK, I strongly disagree with the first two points. How exactly would a Jerome Holtzman Award, a Rollie Fingers Award or a Best Pitcher Who Wasn't A Starter Award threaten the luster of the MVP Award?

The MVP is, and always will be, the ultimate honor. And we have a half-century of Cy Young voting to prove it. The Cy Young was invented because pitchers were being ignored in the MVP voting, and we now have an exact parallel with relievers.

Meanwhile, I recognize that a great reliever isn't as valuable as a dominant starter or cleanup hitter. And I've already conceded that the save is the most overrated stat of all time. But I can't believe there are still people out there who think closers don't matter.

Consider these names: Armando Benitez, Jose Mesa, Joe Borowski, Jorge Julio, etc., etc. How many managers, GMs and fans are still having nightmares about the fine work of those guys in the ninth inning? A million? A trillion? A gazillion? Tell those people relievers aren't that important, will ya?

Finally, it's obviously true that not all great players win our major awards. But so what? We're still wrong for ignoring the great Mariano. And my biggest points are as valid as ever:

• Over the past 17 years, and especially over the past 10, we've pretty much stopped voting for relievers for any kind of award. So it's time we recognized that trend and acknowledge that men like Rivera, K-Rod and Trevor Hoffman are a big, big part of this sport.

• And it would only help us if we create this award -- because, come Hall of Fame time, we're going to need something more incisive than save totals to help us figure out what the heck a Hall of Fame relief pitcher really looks like. The nine years it took Goose Gossage to get elected prove that point emphatically.

Strike Three -- More Big Mac Dept.

I'm still being bombarded by e-mails on Mark McGwire. One of them came from loyal reader Tom Dodson, who wasn't happy to see that Buster Olney, Tim Kurkjian and I all say we're still likely to keep voting for McGwire for the Hall of Fame. Some excerpts from Dodson's e-mail:

    "I can't believe you, Buster, and Tim would all vote for Big Mac. I understand your defense of everyone using steroids in the '80s and '90s, but we also need to put the benefits of steroids into perspective a little bit. . . .

    "How can you discount the effect of steroids when you have Brady Anderson and Luis Gonzalez as examples? They put up preposterous numbers ... more preposterous than Mac and Sosa because they weren't supposed to hit home runs. What kind of evidence of the benefits of steroids on hitters do you need? ...

    "They smashed ancient records. Baseball was embarrassing. Mac's 'apology' was a copout. ESPN's coverage of Manny's comeback was nauseating. ... I am just confused about what message ESPN and the writers are sending. Being OK with Big Mac and glorifying ManRam seems like oil to the water of America's pastime. To me it just doesn't mix.

    "I still love you, Olney, and Kurkjian, but sometimes I get the feeling that ... you're being forced to play the devil's advocate."

All right, let me clear something up right now: I've never said I felt good about voting for any of these guys. I've just said I'm uncomfortable with trying to play the big steroids guessing game. Tell us how we're supposed to know who used and who didn't when the only evidence we're working with is either sketchy, incomplete or nonexistent.

I still say: Let's just be honest about the era and about the players who played in it. If we elect someone like McGwire, why can't we just say, right there on his plaque, that he broke the single-season home run record and later admitted he used steroids while doing it? For everyone else, let's do what Bob Costas suggested:

Hang a sign in the gallery that says: "This was The Steroid Era. Put the accomplishments of all the players who played in that time in that perspective."

There's no other fair way to handle the era. None. I keep trying to remind people that it wasn't just a handful of players who were involved here. It was hundreds. So except for the usual suspects, we're trying to guess, every time we cast a vote. Maybe some people like being in that position. I sure don't.

We could always react by electing NOBODY from that era, I guess. But that's not fair to the clean players. So I feel like I've been forced into the uneasy spot of voting for players based on their career accomplishments. I'm taking that stance in part because that's what hundreds of voters once did with Gaylord Perry. And it's exactly the way voters have handled all of baseball's inequities through the years.

So that's why I've said for years I think I'm stuck with casting a vote for the best players of The Steroid Era, unless felony convictions or other black marks convince me otherwise. But I've never, ever claimed I felt warm and fuzzy inside about casting those votes. And I know Buster and Tim feel exactly the same way.

If you'd like to weigh in on these, or any other, issues, check in any time, on Twitter @jaysonst, or via email, to uselessinfodept@yahoo.com.