I don’t need to tell you that we’ve been having December in April in the Chicago area, as well as much of the Midwest and Northeast.
Just three weeks into the 2018 baseball season, the Cubs have had five postponed games, four at Wrigley Field and one in Cincinnati. By the time they leave Thursday evening for their road trip to Colorado and Cleveland, they’ll have made up two of those postponements (the home opener the next day, and Wednesday’s game on Thursday), but that still leaves three games moved elsewhere in the season. Two of them will be made up in the same week: last Sunday’s game against the Braves will be made up May 14, and the Cincinnati postponement from April 3 will be part of a split doubleheader May 19. (Oh, and the Denver-area forecast for Friday night isn’t good, so the Cubs might be faced with yet another postponement there.)
All of this has led to questions about the length of the baseball season, even though in some years it’s been quite pleasant and even warm in the Chicago area in April. As noted in Tom Skilling’s weather blog Wednesday, the average temperature so far this April in Chicago is the coldest since 1881, so no living person has experienced anything like this.
After playing Saturday’s game in horrific conditions, apparently pushed by Major League Baseball to do so, the Cubs were more proactive in postponing games Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, which is much better for everyone: players, gameday employees and fans.
A couple of those players expressed opinions recently that the baseball season could be shortened. Anthony Rizzo did so on a radio broadcast Tuesday:
During his weekly appearance on ESPN 1000, Rizzo pitched the idea of a shorter baseball season, even if it meant that players had to take pay cuts.
“I think we play too much baseball,” Rizzo told host David Kaplan. “Yes, guys are going to take pay cuts. But are we playing this game for the money or do we love this game? I know it’s both, but in the long run, it will make everything better.”
Later, though, according to the link above, Rizzo walked back those remarks:
Rizzo seemed to want to end the conversation quickly. It wasn’t known whether he had heard from the players’ union about his pay-cut comments or whether he was just tired of talking about it.
“I just said my opinion on the air,” Rizzo said. “And I don’t really want to get into it just because I don’t know. I don’t quite know it. It’s not something I stand behind. It’s just my opinion.”
Later, though, Albert Almora Jr. echoed his teammate’s comments:
“I don’t see why not,” Almora said. “I think you could (still) determine the best teams with a shorter season. I don’t think there’s a reason to play 162 and determine at that length who’s the best team. I think we could determine it before that.
”I don’t know how the conversations would be like for the players’ union and what we would talk about. But when it comes down to a shorter season, I think everybody would be in favor of that.”
And again, later in the article he kind of walked that back:
“It’s what we’ve been doing for the longest time,” Almora said. “I think we’re overreacting a bit because of the weather the last couple weeks. It’s usually not this bad.”
Let’s stipulate right here that Almora is correct, that it’s usually not this bad. 50 years ago, when baseball seasons began right about now (mid-April), you didn’t hear complaints like this — but then again, in those days owners didn’t hesitate to postpone games and schedule them as doubleheaders. Back in the 1960s, the concept of “two games for the price of one” actually did wind up bringing more people into the ballpark at times, and while weather forecasting wasn’t what it is now (and it’s far more accurate than many give it credit for), often teams would postpone games even if it looked like threatening weather. As I noted the other day, the 1966 Cubs played 20 doubleheaders — but only 11 of those were on the original schedule, the other nine were makeups of various postponements. You can click on the link to find out which games, as baseball-reference.com has recently added this data to its schedule pages. I personally helped bb-ref out with this project, sending them Cubs data regarding originally-scheduled dates for the period from 1974 through 2004.
Anyway, there’s simply too much money involved now to just bang a game and have a single-admission doubleheader (the last such DH at Wrigley Field was in 2006). Further, schedules make it difficult at times to make up games, especially with teams making only one trip into a city. That’s apparently why MLB pushed the Cubs to play Saturday, with the Braves not coming back to Chicago this year.
But there doesn’t seem to be any way the 162-game schedule will be shortened. Owners, rightfully so, don’t want to give up revenue. And with fewer games, TV partners would likely ask for reductions in rights fees, and I think you can easily imagine what the answer to such a request would be.
One thing that will eventually solve a lot of these problems is expansion. Once MLB expands to 32 teams, you’d likely have eight divisions of four teams each, and so everybody could spend the entire month of April playing nothing but divisional games. You can’t do that now because of the odd number of teams in each league and division; at least one team has to play an out-of-division game at all times, and there has to be at least one interleague game at all times too. That complicates early-season scheduling. With eight divisions of four, even if, say, a Cubs/Cardinals game got postponed in April, you have plenty of chances to schedule a makeup.
Expansion is still a ways away. Here are some scheduling things MLB could do in the meantime. I’ve written about some of these before, but post them again here in summary, and add a couple of different ideas.
Play at least some early season games in warm weather cities/domes
This is often mentioned as a solution to weather woes in April, but the bottom line is that the warm weather cities and dome teams don’t want those as home games either — they, like everyone else, would rather play in the summer at home when kids are out of school and people are more likely to take time off work. So that’s not an answer.
However, one potential compromise would be to at least play the first weekend of the season in these cities if MLB is going to continue to insist on starting the season the last weekend of March. Do you really want to see baseball in Chicago in late March? Or Boston or Minneapolis or Detroit? (Hint: no.)
Push the season back one week
If they had done that this year, Opening Day would have been April 5 and the regular season would have ended October 7. Under that scenario the postseason would begin October 10 and Game 7 of the World Series would be November 7.
That’s late, but in most of the country you can still have baseball weather the first week of November. Due to a weather phenomenon known as “seasonal lag,” it’s more likely to be warm later in a particular season than early. It’s why the coldest part of winter isn’t when days are shortest (late December), instead it’s late January. And the hottest summer days aren’t when days are longest (late June), instead it’s late July. Thus the chances of getting decent weather the first week of November are much higher than in the first week of April.
Play more day games in April
Some northern teams already do this. Not including Opening Day or weekends, the Tigers had five weekday afternoon starts this month. The Cubs had some too, but they could have played the April 11 game vs. the Pirates and scheduled the two night games vs. the Cardinals this week in the afternoon, and then had more night games in the summer when days can be hot.
I get why they want these night dates in April — TV ratings are higher in April than they are in the summer when many people are traveling on vacation.
But it would make more sense to play afternoon games most of April when nights can be cold. Really, the Cubs shouldn’t play home night games until the last week of April.
One thing I’m not going to suggest is scheduling split doubleheaders. Almost everyone hates these — players, fans, stadium workers, broadcasters. Also, if you schedule these and then postponements happen, you’re going to have more of them. That would be overtaxing to pretty much anyone’s pitching staff and potentially risk injury to other players. Paul Sullivan wrote a column today in the Tribune in which he again claimed it was the Cubs pushing to play Saturday, something with which I do not agree. But he concurs with me about doubleheaders:
Players loathe split doubleheaders, which tend to be very long days at the park because teams have to leave time between games to clear the park. Owners don’t like straight doubleheaders because they lose revenues for a game with two-for-one tickets.
So doubleheaders are the least likely solution to scheduling issues. The bottom line is... well, the bottom line. I cannot see the schedule reduced, mainly for financial reasons. But here’s something that might alleviate at least some of these issues:
Increase roster size and/or have “taxi squads”
One thing that’s been previously discussed that could happen to help reduce player fatigue through a long 162-game schedule is some form of expanded roster. Either have a 26-man roster throughout, or perhaps carry 30 players, of whom only 25 would be active for each game. In practice, most likely the extra players would be pitchers, but perhaps some teams would discover it might be worthwhile to have an extra position player or two available as a backup.
There are ways to defeat the awful conditions in which some baseball has been played so far in 2018. In my view, though, shortening the season isn’t the answer.
In the meantime, please enjoy this photo of Cubs fans in the bleachers on a sunny summer day in August 2016. It will warm up in Chicago. Eventually. Hopefully. Maybe.