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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD

Big League Baseball
Coming to a Ballpark Near You

By Mike Shaler

Like a ray of sunshine piercing through the cloud of steroids, the return of baseball to the nation's capital became the feel-good story for a good part of the 2005 season. Until they faded after the All-Star break, the Washington Nationals, sparked by pitcher Livan Hernandez's fifteen wins, banded together under the leadership of manager Frank Robinson to play exciting ball and pack once-moribund RFK stadium.

And that news, by and large, is wonderful. I'll disclose my bias up front: I'm a liberal baseball theologist, and I believe in spreading the game and especially in replanting it in soil from which it was once so cruelly ripped.

However, as Neil deMause aptly notes in "National Treasure" (EFQ vol. 22, no. 1, Winter 2005), there is a dark spot on this baseball sun. The D.C. government caved in to Major League Baseball's financial demands, and Washingtonians are now on the hook for perhaps $600 million for a new yard. At best, it is an unfortunate detour from the recent encouraging path of lessened public financing for the stadia of billionaires and their millionaire employees, as we saw in San Francisco and are seeing in St. Louis. We can only hope that other regions do not follow the Washington model for joining the big leagues. Of course, in the monopolist world of MLB, where owners need not fear the threat of anti-trust litigation, Bud Selig holds most of the cards.

And, as David W. Monahan so poignantly illustrated in the same Winter 2005 issue of EFQ, the abandoning of Montreal is beyond sad, and, in fact, should be seen as quite unnecessary.

A quick aside on Montreal: As many have noted, the Expos did, in fact, have their years of drawing well. And, taking only a few more steps into baseball history, this city became the first in several generations to integrate organized, affiliated professional baseball. In looking back on that 1946 season in which the Montreal Royals won both the International League pennant and the Little World Series, all the while sparked by second baseman Jackie Robinson, Rachel Robinson says, "I'll never forget the experience of being embraced by this city."

And therein lies the problem, one that's even more persistent than steroids. When good baseball towns are ruined, when others must mortgage the future to rejoin the big leagues, then something's seriously amiss.

What is there to be done?

Here's one answer, and it's a drum I beat back in these pages in the fall of 1993 (EFQ vol. 12, no. 3): Expansion.

Some readers may be recoiling in horror. Is there enough pitching? Yes. (If expansion dilutes pitching, then someone will need to explain the 1960s to me.)

Of course, expansion will require a reconfiguration of how the major league teams share money, both with the cities in which they play and with one another. (One possibility: public ownership a la the Toledo Mud Hens). The key here is thoughtful, reasoned expansion, which is not, per force, about putting money in the pockets of owners. It's about easing the monopoly grip of playing one region against another in a fixed market of just thirty teams. It's about giving fans, whether they are in Washington or Montreal or elsewhere, what they want—which is, naturally, big league baseball.

Expansion will create more major league jobs, and thus some will argue that the quality of play must therefore decrease. I say it ain't necessarily so. The first time a Boston American League team won the World Series, the then-U.S. population of eighty million people supported sixteen teams. Some one hundred and two years later, the country's population has more than tripled, yet the number of teams has not even doubled.

Yes, other sports now draw athletes away from baseball. And yes, team rosters were smaller in Cy Young's day. But compared to that time, the game is integrated and pulls in players from all over the world. A bit of arithmetic is instructive.

If each of the sixteen teams of 1903 averaged fifteen-man rosters, then at least 240 players took the field that year. Posited against the backdrop of eighty million Americans, that works out to approximately one big leaguer per 333,333 people. Or, put another way: a third of a million people needed to produce one major league ballplayer.

Now, take that ratio and post it against the backdrop of four hundred million people, a deliberate underestimate of the population of the U.S. and Latin America—today's primary sources of players—and it is clear that we could produce twelve hundred big leaguers.

How many teams can one make with that many players?

At twenty-five players per team, forty-eight. Four dozen. A third of a gross. It all has a certain heft to it. And that number brings forth this question: If there are enough quality players for so many teams, are there enough places?

Yes, there are.

Are some of these locations not yet ready for the big leagues? Am I hoping against political reality with Havana? Probably so, but are there other cities such as Ottawa or Calgary or Columbus or Nashville or Jacksonville or El Paso or Las Vegas or somewhere else that may be just as ready to host a team? Yes, there are.

I won't pretend to know the intricate political inner-workings of all these locales. But what I will say is that every place mentioned has a core urban population that is large enough, and a historical link to professional baseball that is deep enough, to imagine a set of circumstances in which a big league team can take the field.

As for scheduling two leagues of twenty-four teams each, there are several possibilities. One solution: play the teams within your division eighteen times each. This maintains rivalries, and results in ninety games. Of the other three divisions within your league, play teams from two of those divisions six times each. This results in seventy-two games. Of note: no interleague play; everyone within your division plays the exact same schedule, three-game series are the norm, only first-place teams go to the playoffs.

Of course, there are countless other ways to construct a season with forty-eight big league clubs. But the point is that it can easily work, without expanding the playoffs and without demeaning the regular season.

In a larger sense, what I'm saying is that the heartbreak of Expos fans, the Washington giveaway to owners—all of this can be avoided. There's absolutely no reason to go through this Montreal-to-Washington scenario again. And there's no reason to artificially restrict the number of major league teams at a level that is far below the ability of players to stock those teams, and far below the ability of fans to support those teams.

In a baseball world that includes franchise stability as a guarantee, that allows public ownership, that will not ask for a fan's loyalty and then walk away, the game truly would belong to the fans.

And that will not only purify the ray of sunshine that is Washington baseball, but it will also allow the light of big league ball to glow in a ballpark near you.

—EFQ

MIKE SHALER, a past contributor to EFQ, a SABR member, a San Francisco Giants fan, and a former teacher, has become, following an MFA in creative writing, a wannabe novelist. His fiction is forthcoming in The MacGuffin, and his essay on Ma Joad won first prize in TheDustyShelf.com's "Mothers in Literature" contest. He is married to Ellen Chafetz Shaler, a Detroit Tigers fan, and they look forward to Giants' road games in Honolulu and Tigers' road games in San Juan.

© 2005 Mike Shaler

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