Baseball RIsing: A Ten Point Manifesto for the Health of Today’s and Tomorrow’s MLB

Let’s start this proposal with an honest declaration – I do not want to be writing this piece right now. I would much rather be sitting here at my desk watching previous seasons’ highlights (2016 Cubs postseason games most likely) while contemplating all of the hot stove dealings and considering my 2022 MLB predictions. My mother started having every member of our family make yearly baseball picks when I was still young. I grew up loving the pure brilliance of the sport while developing a deep adoration of both the Chicago Cubs and the Texas Rangers. The Cubs due to Harry Caray and WGN, and the Rangers because they were the closest team and consistently on television. Most years I have picked one or both of those teams to make it to the World Series and if I were forecasting the 2022 World Series today I would pick the Cub over the Rangers. Simply put, I love my teams. I love baseball. I love the MLB. I even start a countdown to the next opening day immediately following the end of each World Series. The MLB is one of the biggest passions and joys in my life. I want to see the game expand and the fanbase grow bigger, younger, and more diverse. It is with this desire in mind that I present the following ten recommendations to strengthen the game and get the preparations for the 2022  MLB season underway.

Impact the Game Issues

Independent Commissioner

This first idea is rather novel. MLB needs an independent commissioner. The current status quo, where the office of the commissioner serves the owners first, is not working. Decisions are made because of how they impact the bottom line of a few rather than how they aid the overall health of the game. However, what is best for the several owners is neither what is best for the majority of the fans nor the players. This needs to be completely revamped, with a revolutionary structure taking its place. The MLB Commissioner should serve the game. This includes serving the needs of the owners, the players, the umpires, and the fans equitably.

Universal DH

It is fun to see a pitcher get a hit, and even more fun to see a pitcher hit a home run. For pitchers not named Ohtani, the latter is becoming as rare as finding a unicorn and the former as uncommon as a non-sweltering August home game for the Texas Rangers. A universal DH coming to the National League would increase the potential for runs in senior circuit games. Plus it adds another starter-level player to each national league team. This improves the watchability, overall excitement, and total health of the game of baseball.

Expansion, Expansion, Expansion

The game needs to expand. It needs to expand in three ways – rosters, teams, and playoffs. The expanded late-season roster needs to come back after its short-lived hiatus. This allows younger players a chance to show their skills at the big league level. It also allows for playoff teams to be more fully healthy and ready for the post-season. More September call-ups expands the fraternity of MLB players. Further, consider these all-time greats who began their storied careers with a late-season call-up: Jose Canseco, David Price, Fred Lynn, Fernando Valenzuela, and the following Hall-of-Famers – Greg Maddux, Edgar Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Ernie Banks, and Stan Musial. I mean the fact that Mr. Cub and Stan the Man started their legends as September call-ups is enough of a reason to make expanded late-season rosters a permanent part of the game once again.

I attended my first MLB game, Rangers vs. Yankees, in 1980 – before I turned 2. I really started to follow and love baseball around the 1985 and 1986 seasons, non coincidentally this is also around the time when my still expanding baseball card collection started. In 1980 there were 26 MLB teams. This total had risen systematically over the previous 20 years. From the 16 teams playing in the 1960 season, to 18 in 1961, 20 in 1962, 24 in 1969, and then 26 in 1977. This total number of teams would rise to 28 in 1993, and then to the current 30 teams in 1998. It is time to add two more teams to get to 32. Then realign each league into 4 four-team divisions. Adding teams adds media markets, fan bases, and allows even more players to be on major league rosters. Personally, I would love to see Montreal and Nashville be the two cities awarded new franchises.

As the number of teams grows and the division alignments are reworked, the playoffs must expand as well. Either an 8 or a 6 team playoff in each league would work best. An 8 team playoff, with the top two teams in each division making the playoffs, would be my preference, as it allows more players to benefit from the playoff share pool of monies. However, a 6 team playoff, with the four division winners being joined by two wild-card teams, would respect the importance of the regular season, as the two best teams in each league would benefit from first-round byes. In either format, the first round could be a best of 3 series, followed by a best of 5 divisional round, while keeping the best of 7 configuration for the league championships and World Series.

An End to Regional Media Blackouts

I live in central Oklahoma. I am 3 hours and 22 minutes away from Globe Life Stadium in Arlington. I am 4 hours and 59 minutes away from Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. I am 6 hours and 30 minutes away from Minute Maid Park in Houston. I am 6 hours and 47 minutes away from Bush Stadium in St. Louis. Only one of these teams, the Texas Rangers, has every game available via my local cable provider. However, I am blacked out from watching each of these four teams via my MLB.tv streaming subscription. This is utter ridiculousness. This system might have made a modicum of sense during the days when cable and satellite reigned supreme if the teams available to watch locally were the only ones blacked out. This was never the case though. And this insane system has continued to the present time of streaming via websites and mobile apps. MLB would sell more MLB.tv packages, thus growing the overall fan base, by eliminating these ridiculous blackout restrictions. Younger consumers are not buying cable or satellite packages when prevented from watching their local team on the app, they simply are not watching. This situation has to change. It must change both, for the health of the game, and for the economic interest of all involved.

Owner Competitiveness Ratings

The last concept in this initial category of proposals is rather novel as well. There should be a yearly rating of the competitiveness of each MLB ownership group. As Herm Edwards famously said, “You play to win the game.” Yes, he was talking about football, but this maxim holds true across the landscape of professional sports. Players play to win. Coaches coach to win. Managers manage to win. This should be as true of every front office decision as it is of every playing field decision. This starts with the owners being held accountable for their teams’ results. Owners consistently falling below an independently set level of competitiveness should be forced to sell. Yes, this is extreme, but not without precedent in professional sports. Racecar drivers not maintaining minimal speed are forced off the track and potentially out of that race. Certain professional sports season ticket holders whose tickets are repeatedly never used can be demoted to lesser seats or have their tickets outright revoked in subsequent seasons. The NBA once bought a team because they did not trust the current owner to sell the team to someone worthy of owning an NBA team. Who owns the MLB franchises matters, and their decisions should be scrutinized to maintain the health of the sport. An independent MLB Commissioner could oversee a yearly owner review process such as this. It could be based upon a point system from a multitude of factors –spending in relation to the salary floor (see below), aggregate win-loss totals over a five or ten year period, detailed data from routine employee team climate and team culture surveys (do the day-to-day employees see the team as trying to win), use of innovation across the organization, detailed data from fan surveys (ticket holders plus those who list a team as their favorite on their MLB.com profile), the number of arbitration cases being held over the previous five to ten years, as well as other pertinent sources of information.  The long-term health of the MLB revolves around owners more concerned about the results on the field than the status of their bank accounts. If they want to grow their wealth they should buy some real estate or franchise a Chick-fil-A, and let others invest in the future of the game we love.

Economic Issues

Salary Floor

As stated above the goal for every MLB team should be winning. Being competitive and winning requires paying competitive salaries. To encourage an increase in spending levels to impact competitiveness a salary floor should be established. This floor should be $100 million. Teams spending below this threshold should be penalized with a loss of draft picks and penalized in the owner competitiveness ratings. In 2021 thirteen MLB teams had salaries under this level, five teams spent less than $50 million, while three teams spent less than $17,000,000.00 on their 26 man rosters. The teams that spent the least won the least, while the teams spending the most were competitive throughout the season. With revenue sharing being a part of the game there should be no reason not to spend, otherwise, eliminate revenue sharing and allow teams to keep their own profits. There is no reason for a successful team to share their revenue with teams making less if they are not going to reinvest those dollars into the product on the baseball diamond. Revenue sharing is about raising the competitiveness of the entire sport, not propping up the financial status of those in the owners club.

$1,000,000.00 Minimum Salary

Closely related to the idea of a salary floor for each team is the need to raise the minimum MLB player salary. In November 1979 Nolan Ryan signed a 4 year $4 million contract with the Houston Astros, becoming the league’s first $1 million player. For the 1980 season, the league minimum salary was $30,000. Since the Strikeout King’s landmark deal, the highest-paid player salary has risen from $1 million to the $37.1 million Mike Trout made in 2021. The same rate of change applied to the league minimum salary would take it from $30,000 in 1980 to $1,113,000 in 2021. The MLB average salary has risen almost as much over the same time period – $143,756 in 1980 to $4,170,000 in 2021. This rate of change would take the minimum from  $30,000 in 1980 to $870,225 in 2021. Now let’s examine salary based on the change in team purchase price for teams in the same city almost 50 years apart. In 1974 the Steinbrenner’s purchased the New York Yankees for $8,700,000. In 2020 Steve Cohen purchased the New York Mets for $2,475,000,000. The league minimum in 1974 was $15,000. When the rate of change in team purchase price is applied to minimum salary it results in a present-day salary of $4,267,21.00. Therefore a minimum salary of $1 million allows players to be fairly compensated while still allowing the owners to benefit from quite large profits.

Get Paid Early

In addition to increasing the minimum salary, there needs to be a change to the arbitration and free agency process. Currently, MLB players are eligible for arbitration after their third year of service while continuing to be eligible until the time of free agency arrives after their sixth year in the league. To the benefit of the players and to spur owners to increase the spending on their own players and free agents, this should move from years 4-6 to years 3-5. Players should make the minimum or higher in years 1 and 2, then be arbitration eligible through year 5, at which point they reach completely unrestricted free agency. The owners are making record profits due to the on-field efforts of the players, the players should be compensated fairly for their efforts.

An End to Competitive Balance Measures

The above-mentioned goal of winning should influence all economic decisions across the league. This should lead to an elimination of the competitive balance measures such as draft pick compensation for signing a free agent as well as the luxury tax. The MLB correctly claims not to have a salary cap. While this is semantically true, even the slightly more-than-casual fan knows this is functionally false. The luxury tax threshold serves as a cap level for most teams, and those willing to go over it for one or a few years are not willing to keep going over it repeatedly due to the extremely excessive penalties attached. This is the opposite of making decisions based on competitiveness and health of the game. These measures stifle competitiveness and encourage mediocrity and complacency in its place. This is not to say there should be an elimination of all revenue sharing. Revenue from sources such as national media contracts, the advertisement revenue from nationally televised games as well as from MLB.tv and the MLB channel, and from league-wide events such as the All Star game should be equitably shared across all MLB teams. Further, there is a place for some revenue sharing from teams, albeit from their profits not from levies placed upon a team’s spending level. Also, teams should not be penalized for signing a free agent. These punitive measures create a pathway for collusion to reenter the landscape of MLB. Teams should be encouraged to spend on their own players and spend on those in the free-agent pool as well. Increased spending leads to increased competitiveness and improves the overall health of the game of baseball.

International Draft

The final measure is to institute an international draft. This would benefit international players as it would elevate their level of compensation, make teams value them more, and could eventually improve the baseball infrastructure in these baseball-talent-rich countries. This is yet a further issue aimed to get more of the money to the hands of the players thus improving the health of the game of baseball.

Conclusion

It is time for MLB to be positioned for the next generation and beyond. There are some strong parts of the game of baseball. Just look at the viewership numbers of last year’s inaugural MLB at Field of Dreams game between the Yankees and the White Sox. It was the most watched regular season game since 2005.  The most watched in-season game in 16 years! MLB needs to assess why this game was so popular. Why did it draw such large numbers of viewers? The baseball card industry is also thriving and growing. MLB needs to assess the reasons for this as well. There are also troubling trends that need to be addressed. The declining attendance across the league. The lack of popularity among younger generations. These, and other issues, can be dealt with by using the strengths of the game as advantages. These strengths can grow stronger by adopting each of the 10 above-mentioned objectives. Major League Baseball can have a vibrant and abounding future, but only with intentionality surrounding the economic and overall health of the game.