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Fewer games on the schedule could ultimately be better for baseball

A number of major league players have stepped forward and put their stamp on the proceedings in April and May. Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre recently clouted their 400th career home runs. Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton seemingly outdo each other by the day. Shelby Miller has emerged as a budding ace in Atlanta, and Matt Harvey has made an inspirational return from Tommy John surgery as the Dark Knight of Gotham.

But if you're looking for someone who best embodies the travails of the modern-day ballplayer -- i.e., a bleary-eyed, heavy-limbed hamster on a wheel -- St. Louis third baseman Matt Carpenter might be your man.

Carpenter, a two-time All-Star who ranks fifth in the National League with a .948 OPS, appeared in 27 straight games to start the season before taking a four-day break this month for "extreme fatigue." The diagnosis was mystifying to those who wondered how a player could be gassed this early in the calendar. But as Cardinals manager Mike Matheny pointed out, Carpenter's bouts of dizziness, dehydration and an accelerated heart rate came after a rigorous stretch of 20 games in 20 days.

"We love how he goes about the game, but obviously there is a price to pay," Matheny said. "It's a hard pace to keep up."

The MLB season has variously been described as a marathon, a grind, and a physical and mental endurance test, with killer travel, early morning hotel check-ins, day games after night games and off-days filled with charity golf tournaments as part of the tableau. Players are loath to complain because they know the public reaction will be dismissive or downright hostile: Is there a fan in America who'll sympathize with professional athletes who are living the dream at an average salary of $4.25 million a year?

Against that backdrop, MLB players should consider themselves fortunate to have a high-profile surrogate making the case for leniency. Shortly after taking over for Bud Selig in late January, new commisioner Rob Manfred began floating the idea of reducing the season from 162 to 154 games. Manfred has continued to discuss the topic publicly, even though it was not on the agenda during the MLB owners' meetings in New York this week.

Now that Manfred has weighed in with his thoughts, players have some cover in claiming that 162 games in 183 days is an antiquated concept -- the equivalent of squeezing 2½ pounds of bratwurst into a two-pound bag. Although no one can say definitively that the schedule leads to blown-out elbows, more disabled list visits and uninspired play, the topic is suddenly on the radar.

"I don't want to come across as we're complaining that the schedule is brutal," said Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler. "We all signed up for this. But at the same time, it's tough to be at your best when you have 20 days off over a six-month span. Anytime you're playing fatigued or tired, you're an injury risk. You have to play this game at a certain level to be competitive. If you don't have your full reserves to draw on, it's tough."

Ziegler, a member of the Players Association's executive sub-committee, expects the decision to ultimately boil down to economics when it's raised in collective bargaining toward a new labor deal in 2016. If teams are going to sacrifice several games of gate receipts to create a more humane schedule, what concessions will the players have to make?

"I think everybody is for it," Ziegler said. "The question is, 'What do we have to give up to get it?' Where's the tradeoff? Maybe there's not a good compromise. But if there's a way to work it out, I think it would improve the game quite a bit."

From 154 to 162

The American League shifted from a 154 to a 162-game schedule after the 1960 season, and the NL followed suit a year later. As MLB historian John Thorn has explained, the change was necessitated by a need for uniformity in conjunction with expansion from 16 to 20 teams.

The configuration hasn't changed for a half-century, but not all 162-game seasons are created equal. The New York Yankees, who won the World Series in 1961, played their opener on April 11 and enjoyed 29 off-days before the season finale Oct. 1. There was more opportunity for breathing room to accommodate 162 games because the Yankees played a whopping 23 doubleheaders -- and not the day-night kind that force players to arrive at the park at 10 a.m. and hang around until midnight.

Of New York's 46 doubleheader games during the 1961 season, 34 took less than 2 hours, 40 minutes to complete. "Pace of game" was never an issue in those days.

The postseason was also less of an ordeal. The 1961 World Series between New York and Cincinnati began on Oct. 4 and ended Oct. 9. True, many players held down side jobs in the offseason during that era to supplement their meager incomes on the field; Willie Mays and Willie McCovey sold cars over the winter, and Jim Palmer worked in a clothing store. But players were not required to spend each winter lifting weights and working out like demons to ensure they would arrive at spring training in optimal shape. Spring training was a time for players to get in shape.

Slowly and almost imperceptibly, MLB has added layers of stress to the schedule -- from interleague play to rounds of playoffs to ESPN Sunday Night Baseball. When the Pirates first laid eyes on their 2015 schedule, they duly noted that they would be playing 33 games in 34 days (and 49 games in a 51-day span) in August and September.

"One change I have noticed: You open and close your suitcase a lot more now," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who broke into the majors with Kansas City in 1977. "I can't quantify it, but it's real."

Of course, the pharmaceutical elephant in the room adds an emotional component to the conversation. Along with stricter testing for performance-enhancing drugs, MLB instituted a ban on amphetamines in 2006, putting an end to a time-honored ritual and baseball crutch. In 1969, Jim Bouton shocked the establishment with revelations of rampant "greenie" consumption in the Seattle Pilots' clubhouse in his book "Ball Four." Flash forward to this spring, and national writers were wondering how Baltimore first baseman Chris Davis incurred a 25-man suspension last season by failing to apply for a therapeutic use exemption for Adderall.

No big-league player is going to advocate a return to the good old days, when "uppers" filled candy jars in the middle of the clubhouse. But it's not a stretch to say the average law student cramming for finals has more pharmaceutical help at his disposal than the 750 players on big-league rosters.

"Baseball is in a good place as far as the whole PED situation," said Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker, the team's union representative. "But from a recovery standpoint, you see more stuff creeping up on the [prohibited] list. You're basically relegated to coffee now. If you have a heavy bat, you choke up and hope you sleep well that night and wake up better tomorrow. When it's September and you're in a playoff race, your mindset and adrenaline go to a different spot. But in August, when you're grinding mentally, those off days can be very valuable."

Some scouts who follow teams from town to town think the crackdown has had an impact. In the current climate, general managers have become more circumspect about signing older players, and fresh young legs are more valued in building a roster for the long haul.

"MLB has this policy of cleaning up baseball, but it's 'Dead Men Walking' out on the field," said an MLB scout. "You're asking guys to play two-game series and fly across country after night games and play the next day, and you're taking away all the stuff they used to use.

"The swings are longer and slower. Guys don't run as hard down the line because they're trying to conserve their energy. The outfielders don't throw as well. And guys look tired in day games after night games, so teams have to use their backups more and the product isn't as appealing. There are a lot of areas where it affects you."

The statistical fallout

When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's record with 61 homers in the expanded 1961 season, then-commissioner Ford C. Frick debated whether to put an asterisk beside his name (ultimately, the answer was no). Similarly, a return to 154 games would prompt a discussion on statistics and the historical "integrity" of the numbers.

"I think everybody is for [shortening the schedule]. The question is, 'What do we have to give up to get it?' Where's the tradeoff? Maybe there's not a good compromise. But if there's a way to work it out, I think it would improve the game quite a bit."
Brad Ziegler, Diamondbacks pitcher

"What does it do to Cooperstown?" Hurdle said. "Does it change the leverage of historical marks? For me, the one yardstick you've always been able to use from an offensive standpoint is 200 hits. That number hasn't changed for years regardless of how the game has changed. Dead ball. Live ball. The mound is up. The mound is down. It's hard to get 200 hits in a season. If you take away eight games, it will be even harder."

The excesses of the steroid era have devalued some numbers and put a dent in their cachet. It's hard to worship the almighty milestone when Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa are frozen out of Cooperstown, and Alex Rodriguez just passed Willie Mays with his 661st homer in a relative echo chamber.

In reality, each era has its quirks or underlying factors that help provide context. Ruth hit 714 homers during segregation in baseball. Mays and Hank Aaron admittedly took amphetamines when they played, and the steroid era raised the stakes to a completely different level.

"People get caught up in numbers, but it's the generation you played in," said Philadelphia Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa. "Hank Aaron or Willie Mays would shatter records if they played in these parks now. You see strikeouts right now? It's hard to imagine what Nolan Ryan or Steve Carlton would do today. The statistics are nice, but I don't think that should be detrimental to breaking it down to 154 vs. 162."

Lest fans view this as the latest example of a namby-pamby, coddling mentality toward players, even baseball hard cores wonder if more down time in the schedule might be beneficial. That includes Bowa, who played in 162 games in 1974 even though he was listed at 155 pounds. He'll turn 70 in December and still arrives at the park early each day and wields a fungo bat with aplomb.

After mulling the question of a shorter season, Bowa thinks a better option would be to increase rosters from 25 players to 27 or 28. Each night, the manager would submit a list of 25 to the umpires, and the players who aren't on the list would be guaranteed a night off.

Bowa is less sold on the idea of going from 162 to 154 games. But he's seen enough semi-comatose players and compiled enough travel horror stories in recent years to understand why it's a topic of discussion.

"If I was punching a clock and I had to get up at 6 a.m., I would say, 'You've got to be kidding me. These guys are making so much money,'" Bowa said. "But things are different now. I think it's worth considering."

Thanks to Manfred's earnest trial balloon, owners and players are ready to engage in a heart-to-heart debate on the subject. After decades of embracing the idea that "more is good," baseball will try to determine if less is even better.