Tuesday, September 8, 2009

MLB Takes A Holiday

I'm old enough to remember when major league baseball actually scheduled doubleheaders in advance. I don't go back to the beginning of this practice, which flourished in the 1930s when the Great Depression threatened to derail professional sports. With the notion of a capacity crowd only a daydream outside of New York, owners figured that giving customers two games for the price of one would lure more people to the parks.

They were right. If you could draw a paying crowd of 20,000 for a Sunday doubleheader, you'd be better off than you would be with a Sunday single-game crowd of 12,000 and a Monday afternoon sprinkling of a few thousand stalwarts. It's different today. Not only are doubleheaders absent from the schedule, if a rainout forces a doubleheader, more often than not it's a day-night affair with separate admissions. This happens when the home team plays to near-capacity crowds and there wouldn't be enough available seats to accommodate the rain-check leftovers. Make no mistake--if you go to a day game that ends at 4pm and have to vacate the building and kill a few hours before attending the second game scheduled that day, it isn't a doubleheader. It's a pair of single games, and a lot of people attend only one of them

There was no such problem in the good old days. You made up rainouts with doubleheaders, sometimes twi-nighters. I attended more than a few doubleheaders as a kid, some of them quite memorable. I was at the Polo Grounds the day that Lou Brock hit one of the handful of home runs into the center field bleachers. That was in the second game; the first game featured the famous incident where Marv Throneberry tripled into an out because he neglected to touch first and second base. Another twin-bill between the Mets and Reds featured Frank Robinson getting ejected from the opener in the top of the first inning for arguing a check-swing strike, and a nightcap where Pete Rose began the game with a home run into the second deck that held up as the game's only run.

Time was when there was a doubleheader every Sunday as well as the three summer holidays: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. I can understand why these have bitten the dust in the current era when owners want 81 separate home dates for hawking the newest logo on their souvenir caps and shirts. But MLB has gone way overboard in the last few seasons by not even playing a full slate of games on Memorial Day and Labor Day. This policy is so self-defeating and blighted that even Bud Selig should be able to figure it out. The schedule used to be made by human beings who understood what a holiday is. Today it's done by computers, which never take a day off and don't understand the concept.

Do I need to explain why this is stupid? Memorial Day and Labor Day are holidays, days of celebration. Kids have the day off from school; Labor Day is often their last day of freedom before the new school year. Many workers have the day off, especially on Labor Day. Offices and government services have the day off. There's nothing to do but get together with friends and family to celebrate. Hey, they could even go to a game! There's nothing stopping people from going to the ballpark for the big holiday. Even if you can't get to a game, everybody's free, and a ballgame on the radio was--and still could be--the perfect accompaniment to that family or neighborhood barbecue or party. Baseball has a massive audience on these extra free days, and in these marketing-laden times, you'd think MLB would seize this opportunity to wring every bit of attention it can get by providing day-long entertainment.

But no. Yesterday, on Labor Day, if you lived in Washington DC, Miami, Atlanta, Baltimore, Seattle, Detroit, and Oakland, your local team had the day off. The Mets also didn't play, leaving the New York market to the Yankees. That's eight teams out of thirty playing no baseball on a national holiday. Why? Because it was a Monday, and the computer program that generates the schedule flags Mondays and Thursdays as the two days of the week when some teams travel and/or rest. It's that simple. Holidays, schmolidays, it's Monday so some teams are off. Screw the fans of these teams who have the extra leisure time to enjoy a game.

Is there any rationale for the "national pastime" depriving more than 25% of its fans of home-town baseball on one of the two weekdays when few of them have to work?

It would have taken Bud Selig about two minutes to look at this year's schedule, see the flaw, and tell someone to fix it. It took me only a couple of minutes to figure out the simple changes in the schedule that would've put all thirty major-league teams on the field yesterday. The Mets and Marlins start a three-game series tonight. They play on Thursday. All you had to do was start the series yesterday and give them Thursday off. The Mets were at home Sunday and the Marlins played in Washington, so they didn't exactly need a travel day on Monday. Likewise, the Braves start a series in Houston tonight, and could've traveled easily from Atlanta to Houston to play yesterday. Instead, Houston hosted the Phillies in the finale of a four-game series that began on Friday. They could've opened that series last Thursday instead, moving the Phillies-Giants series to Monday-Wednesday to free up Thursday for the Phillies. The necessary changes in the American League wouldn't have been any more complicated than that.

All it would've taken was someone--say, the Commissioner, the man whose mandate is to act "for the good of the game"--to say "wait a second, we can't have teams idle on the holidays." Failing that, why didn't the owners of those idle teams protest? Is attendance in Washington DC so tremendous that they couldn't use the boost of having a home game on a national holiday? I suppose there's some greedily self-serving reason why the owners haven't agitated to fix this oversight, but it escapes me. Whatever their motives, the bottom line is that the fans of these teams get the short end of the straw.

It happens that all the major-league teams played on Memorial Day this season, but that hasn't been the case in recent years. In 2008, eight teams were scheduled off on Memorial Day and ten were omitted from the Labor Day schedule. In 2007, six teams got Memorial Day off and two were excused from laboring on Labor Day. And so on. It's one travesty that the person who programs the computer to create the schedule can't bother to make sure that all teams are scheduled on the national holidays. It's a bigger travesty that the people who actually run the game let this self-defeating oversight stand. Does this make any sense to anybody?

A few years ago, a romantic French restaurant opened in what passes for the heart of Cooperstown. They served gourmet food at tables adorned with roses. Late in January, a few weeks after they opened, my wife and I stopped in there to make reservations for Valentine's Day. "I'm sorry," we were told, "but we're not open on Tuesdays." That's true. It said right on the door that they were closed Monday and Tuesday. Do you think they would make an exception for Valentine's Day, which fell on a Tuesday that year? Gee, romantic restaurant, romantic holiday--do you think they would've done some business that night? We'll never know. They were out of business before Valentine's Day rolled around on Wednesday the following year.


Well, some teams get Monday off, which seems to be a law of nature so immutable that even the gazillionaires who run baseball can't do anything about it. It's an old adage that baseball is such a great game that it survives the people who run it. But does that have to be proven so insultingly and so often?

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