If any one group of people could be counted on to make a bad situation worse, it's the 26 major league baseball club owners. The latest example of their shortsightedness is the split season with which the game resumed this week after a hiatus of nearly two months due to the players' strike.
All during the strike it was stated over and over again by people at every level of the game that to have any sort of "meaningful" season, they would have to start anew by early August. The rationale was that baseball is a game which needs a long season to establish a true champion--and that anything less than 100 or so games would be meaningless.
Well, they settled the strike in time to get in those 100 or so games, so what did the owners do? Why, of course, they immediately divided the season in half, creating two mini-seasons of around 50 games each, neither one long enough to prove anything.
Perhaps an elementary math course is in order for the owners: i.e., one meaningless 50-game season equals zero, and when you multiply zero by two, you still get zero. Which is now what the 1981 season has become.
The whole thing is a gimmick, of course, designed to lure back fans who otherwise might write off the season. But what neither the owners nor Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ever seem to understand is that baseball is a game which developed its hold on the public over a long period of years by establishing a maximum of tradition and relying on a minimum of gimmicks. Once you start tinkering around, as Kuhn and some of the so-called "progressive" owners always want to, it gets more and more difficult to stop. Pretty soon tradition is out the window, and you need a new gimmick or two each year just to hang on to a public that once was yours for the asking. If this is progress, give me the status quo!
But Ted Turner is a yachtsman, George Steinbrenner was a football and track enthusiast in his youth, hamburgers are Ray Kroc's thing, etc. Few of today's owners, in fact, have the sort of deep and abiding love of baseball that would enable them to understand and appreciate the fine points that are important to true fans. They see the game only in terms of hype for the mass audience, especially on TV, and they figure maybe it will sell better if it has a little more action, a little more scoring, a little more excitement--in other words, if it's a little more like football, or basketball, or hockey.
This is strange reasoning, considering the fact that baseball in its traditional form has long been the most popular sport of all in this country--the "national pastime," if you will. You'd expect those fortunate enough to be involved in such a gold mine to leave well enough alone and let the others sports worry about catching up. But I long ago abandoned any attempt to apply the rules of logic or reason to the actions of baseball owners, and I'm not about to start now. It's their toy, and unfortunately, if they want to ruin it there isn't much any of us can do about it.
Obviously, once the strike had cut nearly two months out of the season there was no way to resume without creating some inequities. But it was equally clear that these things would have had a much better chance of evening out over a full season of 100 or so games than they do in the new miniseasons.
Surely, for instance, there would have been nothing so patently unfair as the way Oakland has now been handed the AL West first-half championship largely because its early season schedule was such a piece of cake (the A's were 13-1 against Seattle and Minnesota, while contending Chicago didn't meet either of these weak sisters at all).
But as bush league a move as splitting the season was, the owners found a way to do something even worse: They decreed that even if a team won both halves it still would have to risk all in a playoff against the club with the next best record in its division.
This is the provision that has drawn the most criticism--as the owners surely must have realized it would. After all, even in the minor leagues where split seasons are commonplace, if you win both halves you get the title. So why would the owners deliberately create a different system that flies in the face of reason, logic, and fair play? Why, the answer is elementary, my dear Watsons.
If you set up a split season in advance, it's easy to stipulate that a team which wins both halves is the champion. No one knows at that point where his own interest will lie.But in this emergency midseason move, the only teams that could possibly have benefitted from such a system (i.e., the four first-half winners) were already known. The other 22 had nothing to gain that way, but might hope to sneak into the playoffs by the back door if they used a phony system instead.
the question thus became: Do we vote in the best interests of the game or in our own self-interest? Anyone who knows anything about big league owners knows the answer to that one: The vote would have have been 22-4. Obviously the owners knew themselves well enough to realize this sad fact, for there was never even the slightest speculation that they might step out of character just this once and put the long-term interests of the game ahead of their own quick-buck motives.
The immediate result is that the four first-half winners now have virtually nothing to play for the rest of the year. They already know they're in the playoffs, and even if they win the second half as well, they still must go into an "anything can happen" short series. in effect, all the rest of their regular season games are reduced to exhibitions.
The outcry against this situation has been so great that the owners already have attempted to blunt some of the criticism by decreeing a substantial home advantage for any team that wins both halves (it will play the first game of the best-of-five series away, then all the rest at home). This is something, to be sure, but the home field means much less in baseball than in other major sports, and the whole situation is still strictly a sham.
One thing, though, bothers true fans even more than these latest blots on an already asterisk-marked season. That's the fact that the TV-oriented people running the game these days will undoubtedly like the whole idea so much they'll try to make it permanent.
Even before the change was official, I heard one television commentator babbling about how exciting the new format was going to be, and how they should do it all the time. And although some of the more traditional owners insist this is one-shot solution for an exceptional situation, Commissioner Kuhn, who always has those TV dollar signs in his eyes, wants to leave the door open.
"This is a test operation," he said at the time of the announcement, "something the people should take a look at and consider."
Sounds terrific, and then just think of all the other possibilities--like maybe kicking extra points or playing on roller skates. (No, no, Bowie, please I was just kidding!).