Are radical changes really on the way?

From the Times Sunday, a nice overview of the supposed changes that might be a-coming ...

So it will be interesting to see what emanates this season from Commissioner Bud Selig’s recently formed 14-member committee of managers, general managers, owners and others who are exploring ways in which the game may be improved.

Though the committee has been charged with examining the on-field product, it has been given a wide berth, and includes some of baseball’s more renowned names and influential thinkers: Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, John Schuerholz, Frank Robinson and the columnist George Will.

But how much change can be initiated by a group that, for the most part, resembles what some think baseball has increasingly become — a game for older white men?

The committee has one minority member (Robinson) and one person under the age of 50 (Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro). There are no players, umpires, Bill James acolytes or women.


Meanwhile, Fay Vincent, the commissioner who preceded Selig, said he was intrigued that baseball was examining ways to improve the game, but was skeptical that many changes would be forthcoming.

In the early 1990s, Vincent formed a committee to speed up the game, only to have the players pull out for fear of offending umpires. That neither the players nor umpires have a voice on the current panel is not encouraging, he said.

“Almost every American business has figured out that they do best when they work together,” Vincent said, noting the union’s lack of cooperation with the 2007 Mitchell Report that addressed the issue of drug use in baseball. “You can have all this sound and fury, but it doesn’t signify anything if the union is not involved. Everyone knows that the elephant is not in the room.”

Joe Torre's an influential thinker? Have to check on that one. Anyway, as Vincent correctly notes, almost everything that anyone has or will suggest, anywhere -- shorter seasons, thicker bat handles, more playoff games, blowout postseason series against the Japanese, balanced scheduling, or (heaven forfend) floating realignment ... whatever -- will require, to one degree or another, the acquiescence of the Major League Baseball Players Association, so without the union's participation we're reduced to rank, unqualified speculation.

Speaking of speculation, there's something that drives me a little nuts when people talk about changing schedules and realignment ... Nobody actually checks. I'll bet it drives Bill James nuts, too. From an interview two years ago:

What do you think is the future of sabermetrics?

League-perspective decision making. Looking at decisions based from the standpoint of the league. Simple example: the wild card. The National League has 16 teams, and four teams make the playoffs. Sixteen is divisible by four. The natural thing to do, it would seem to me, would be to make four divisions and have four division races. It wasn't done that way, and if you ask anybody why it wasn't done that way, they'll say "They must have thought that there would be more interest in the races if you kept a wild card there." But is that true? It's an issue about which one could do research. One could define what constitutes a "meaningful game" in a pennant race, or, more probably, three or four levels of significance in competition, simulate a league competition 100,000 times one way and 100,000 times the other, and figure out whether you have more meaningful games played one way or the other. It might be that we're doing it right; it might be that we're doing it wrong. Nobody really knows. Why hasn't this been done? It hasn't been done because there is no general understanding that it can be done or no confidence that the research would reach an accurate result. We're in the process now of building confidence in our work process, up to the level at which people naturally think to ask for our input.

When thinking about the impact of realignment, additional wild cards, or whatever, it would be shockingly simple to set up some simulations and figure out what it would mean for competitive balance, fairness, fan interest, TV ratings, attendance, etc. But that's not what Baseball does. At least I don't think that's what Baseball does. I think Baseball gets a bunch of old guys in a room and everyone has a good time and they come up with a few ideas and they run them past commissioner Bud and if he likes anything some other guys try to convince some other guys the ideas are good. But nowhere in that entire process is there room for anyone who says, "Umm, guys? I actually put together some numbers if you're interested..."

Because nobody is. Nobody who matters, anyway. It's hard to take Baseball seriously until Baseball takes itself seriously.

It's been said that changes in the current system are inevitable. That's true. Nothing lasts forever. The divisions and the schedule won't look the same in 2025 as they do in 2010. But I'm not yet convinced that real change is imminent. During a minor bout of spring cleaning this weekend, I ran across a headline in USA Today from exactly 10 years ago (well, actually 10 years and one month ago):

Devil Rays, D'backs could switch leagues

Didn't happen. The story, by Hal Bodley, included this bit:

When the owners -- and the union -- weigh the benefits of radical changes being planned for next season they'll have no choice but to approve them.

"I'm working on a lot of options," Commissioner Bud Selig says. "An unbalanced schedule is a necessity, but there could be some surprises. No final decisions have been made."

The Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays must change leagues for the plan to work. The Diamondbacks, against owner Jerry Colangelo's wishes, will move to the American League West. The Devil Rays, to the delight of owner Vince Naimoli, are expected to be in a new National League division.

Colangelo, one of Selig's best friends, says: "I'd had to be the commissioner that moves the NL West champion to the other league. I'm for realignment, but put us on an equal basis with everyone else."

He has no choice. As expansion teams, both Arizona and Tampa Bay agreed to a clause giving MLB the right to move them after their first two years.

Other teams will switch divisions and the National League will have four, four-team divisions with no wild card if the favored plan is enacted.

As you know, it wasn't. Today the divisions are exactly the same as when Bodley wrote about the owners and the players having no choice but to change them. There's always a choice. Even if you're indicted, you can fly to Venezuela. In this case, there's no need; if the players don't want to do something, they can just say no.