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Commissioner for a day

2/2/2011

One of the best parts of being a baseball fan, especially one that blogs about his favorite team on a regular basis, is being able to voice opinions on a wide range of topics. If you’re talking to me, and can get past my inherent hatred of Carlos Zambrano, you’ll find someone with strong views on what should be done to make this great game even better. Since my time as the main SweetSpot blogger is limited to today, I’d like to share two changes I’d make right now if I could play commissioner for a day.

No. 1: Drastic changes to the All-Star Game are needed.

As a kid, I used to mark my mental calendar for the All-Star Game. It was exciting to see all the American League players I typically did not get a chance to watch. These days I can’t wait for the three-day All-Star break to pass so we can get back to meaningful baseball. That should not be the case. So I propose a few tweaks to the Midsummer Classic that would make the game and the events surrounding it a great deal more entertaining.

First, MLB should make a better decision about whether or not the game truly counts. If you want the game to decide the league that gets home-field advantage in the World Series, as it does now, that’s fine. But take the fans out of the selection process. Give the managers or a team captain the chance to select the roster. If you want the fans involved, then take the seriousness out of the game and find a new way to determine home-field advantage. You can’t have both. It’s ludicrous.

Second, it’s time to change the events that take place the night before the festivities begin. Baseball's annual showcase of the top minor league players is the Futures Game. The problem? MLB schedules the game the day before the break begins, when the rest of the major league teams are playing. Not only that, but they put it up against the national broadcast on Sunday night. It seems to me that the best way to market the product is to not directly compete with the product. Last year the Futures Game was televised on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. ET. It's not a bad time, except that there was a Cubs-Dodgers game beginning just two hours later on "Sunday Night Baseball." Why the competition among games?

The All-Star break always starts on a Monday, and MLB always has a national broadcast on Sunday night. Why not schedule all MLB games as day games and make the Sunday night game be the Futures Game? You could make it a big deal using the “Sunday Night Baseball” announce crew and really do it up special. This would also give all the teams (not just 28 of them) the chance to get Sunday evening off as they head into the break. It would get the players on a plane home that evening instead of late that night and allow them to spend the full, rested day, with family on Monday. It just makes sense, and it’s an easy fix.

Finally, change the Home Run Derby. You can’t scrap it, but please make it shorter. The easiest solution is to cut down the number of participants to six or even four. No more waiting for the perfect pitch. Each of these guys gets to pick who throws to them anyway, so give them an umpire back there. If they take a pitch that is called a strike, it's an out. If the pitch is good enough, you better be swinging. This would make picking your pitcher a key part of the contest. You want to be like Josh Hamilton and have a 106-year-old man pitch to you? Fine, but you better be up there ready to hit.

No. 2: The playoff system needs to be re-examined.

There is one problem with the current format and two improvements I'd make. Currently, we see a best-of-five series in the first round in which the team with the best record in the regular season plays the wild-card team (unless said team is in the same division). This doesn’t give the team with the best record a significant advantage over the rest of the teams. When you battle and claw your way to the best record in the league, you should be rewarded for that hard work with at least an advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Because a short series in baseball is so unpredictable, we've often seen the wild-card team advance over a much better top team.

The 2003 Florida Marlins and the 2007 Colorado Rockies are examples. Both teams were less than impressive and came into the playoffs as wild-card teams. In fact, the Marlins fired their manager earlier in the season before going on a run to get to the playoffs under Jack McKeon. Neither team had any business being in the World Series. Since its inception in 1995, the wild card has provided MLB with four World Series winners, including three straight champions from 2002-04. Maybe I'm just a fan of chalk, but I don't think this should be the case. I want to see the best teams fighting it out in the end, not the hottest teams. My plan is a simple yet radical way to change the format so more of the cream rises to the top in October.

The proposal can be taken apart and implemented separately or together as a package deal.

  • The regular-season league champions choose their first-round opponent.

  • The regular-season league champions get four of the five LDS games at home.

  • Add a second wild-card team to each league.

Here is how each would work.

The first two are fairly self-explanatory. When the season ends, the league champs will choose whom they best match up against and alert the league accordingly. By doing this, it makes being the first seed meaningful because the No. 1 team can avoid a particularly hot team and in turn select a team that might be struggling, injured, not well-rested, etc. The No. 1 team could also choose to simply play a team that it best matches up against. Regardless of the criteria, the format would award the No. 1 seed for being the best over 162 games. The previous six months should not be irrelevant.

Once the matchups are set, the league champ also receives a sizable advantage in the first round. If we're all in agreement that the playoffs tend to get too long, then it's important that the first round stays a best-of-five series. Because a short series tends to lessen the disparity between a good team and an average team, the top team in the league is rewarded with four of the five games being at home. The format would be 2-1-2, which would guarantee that the opponent would get one home game for their fans in the first round. Once the LCS round comes into play, the home-field format would return to normal with the better team getting four of the seven games.

Adding a second wild-card team is a little more interesting. When Bud Selig proposed the idea of three divisions in a league and the addition of the wild card, many purists scoffed at the idea and didn't want to give it a chance. As time has passed it has become clear that the wild card has been a quality improvement because it keeps more teams in the hunt longer into the season. We end up seeing better quality baseball deeper into the season from more teams. Adding a team to that mix would only help that even more.

Under my plan, the three division champions would be given a spot in the playoffs. From there, the next two top records would then be meet in a special play-in game. Simply put, it would be a one-game game playoff the day after the regular season, similar to the ones we see in the event of a tie for the wild card or division. The winner of the play-in game would then be awarded a trip to the LDS.

By implementing this concept, it keeps more teams in the hunt and lessens the idea that a weak division winner would be taking the spot of a team with a better record during the regular season.

Obviously, I’m not going to be commissioner any time soon, but it’s been fun dreaming with you for a few minutes. I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions as well.

Joe Aiello writes View from the Bleachers, a blog about the Chicago Cubs.