I’m not much of a sports fan, but I am a more or less typical American male with access to a television set, radio, and daily newspaper. I figure that in the course of my lifetime I have probably spent 15,000 hours or so watching and listening to sports events, another 5,000 hours reading about sports events, and 1,000 hours or so as a journalist interviewing athletes and coaches.
In all that time over all those years I — like my typical American male counterparts — have pondered thousands of tough questions (should they bring in a right-handed pitcher to face this right-handed batter?) and perplexing issues (is football safer on natural or artificial turf?). But in all that time over all those years, I have had only two original thoughts, which come back to mind now thanks to the looming baseball players’ strike.
The first bright idea is about football. It’s for colleges — maybe Ivy League colleges, for example — that refer to their players as "student-athlete-leaders" but in fact treat them on the field like mindless puppets of a string-pulling coach. The idea is that coaches work with the players up until the time of the game. At that point they leave the field, become spectators, and allow the players to call the plays and set the defenses for themselves. The only professional on the field is the team physician, empowered to remove injured players from the game.
The quarterback or the team captain or some skinny kid with thick glasses might end up calling the plays on the field or from the sidelines. An injured player might become valuable as a spotter in the press box. The players figure it out for themselves and one or more of them — not the coach — faces the terrible question of settling for a tie or going for a win in a close game.
I present this idea to fans and coaches and they sneer: It would ruin the chance of recruiting top players and it would diminish the on-the-field execution of plays. On the other hand, I go to Ivy League games in largely empty stadiums and I see some pretty sloppy football.
Now a thought about baseball. As everyone who has been reading about the threatened players strike knows, the problem in baseball is that the teams in the major markets have been able to purchase the highest priced players. And even though high priced players may not always be better players, these major market teams are winning most of the pennants. Overall attendance is down, and several cities may lose their major league teams. So what can you do?
Nothing. But maybe now is the time to consider a new baseball league, one in which players are paid set amounts based on their years of service and productivity (runs driven in, strikeouts, etc.). Excess profits, if any, would go into a pool from which bonuses for league leading averages and so on would be paid. Another pool would fund retirement plans. There would be no free agents.
Players would be drafted based on geographical regions for each team — the same statistical wizards who determine congressional districts could carve up the country into, say, 12 regions for a 12-team league. And teams would not be able to use cash to pull top players from other teams — they would have to trade players to get players.
The old baseball hands will sneer: It will be sloppy baseball with second rate players. How would you get a television contract? What stadiums would have you? What about a minor league system?
These objections are all based on the thinking that a new baseball league has to have all the grandeur and scale of the existing major leagues. Not so. My idea is to start small. In the beginning the league might be merely an extension of the American Legion baseball program that currently fields teams of high school players.
In the beginning, players might well play for free. They will be hometown boys, after all, and while I, a non-athlete, have spent all this time talking about sports, there are many aging athletes playing in various sandlot games.
In the beginning crowds might be friends and families of the players. But that could change. And while the quality of play might not be at major league level, it may still be entertaining. The other night I watched three or four innings of a scoreless game in the televised Little League playoffs. Then on Sunday night, August 25, I channel surfed into the final game, Louisville against Japan, with the same pitcher going for Louisville. I couldn’t resist, and watched Aaron Alvey pitch a three-hit shutout and hit a home run to win the game, 1-0. A crowd of 40,000 turned out and the television ratings, I’ll bet, were decent. And you had to feel sorry for the Japanese boys — when was the last time you felt sorry for a major league baseball player?
Even though I’m not much of a fan, my bet is that they stave off a strike because even the players are beginning to understand that their act is wearing thin. That’s my thought, not original. My hope, though, is that they do strike. September is a busy month for me, and I would love one less reason to turn on the television.