Envisioning a bold new National League

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There are three sleeping giants in the National League, and, no, I am not talking about San Francisco. The National League should have a trio of flagship franchises who have regular-season pennant races against their natural rivals, create playoff rivalries amongst each other and regularly become the senior circuit’s representative in the World Series.

And their fan bases would have tentacles throughout the country to get transplanted fans and bandwagon jumpers to give them a national presence, in the way that the Yankees and Red Sox became polarizing, yet undeniably popular, teams. When any of these three teams come to town, tickets would be hard to get (and their prices jacked up). Fans would boo the team and the ever-present fans who make the trip to follow their club.

There could be a thriving and astonishingly popular National League. The problem is, the three potential flagship teams—the Mets, the Cubs and the Dodgers—are all a mess right now. And baseball should be doing everything in its power to get those three clubs to thrive, be productive, to win and have star power.

Now, this notion spits in the face in the idealistic, “we want every team to win every year, including the small market clubs,” mantra that we are all supposed to chant in the name of fairness. But guess what? Expanding the appeal of baseball isn’t always fair. It needs to be intertwined with television exposure.

I knew several people at Fox Sports who, in 2008, were practically acting as if it were Mardis Gras when it looked like the Cubs, Dodgers and Mets were all going to make the playoffs at once. Instead, the Mets fell apart, letting the Brewers in. The mood soured after that. Then the Cubs were swept and the Dodgers were eliminated, and the Phillies, not yet a national team, were in. It was a morgue at Fox during that World Series.

But, more importantly, which kind of team could spark rivalries with other teams in its division? A nondescript franchise from a small market? Or a team with deep roots in a big city? It is vital not only to have good teams to root for, but a bad guy to root against. As I stated in one of my blog videos, it is like a James Bond film. The best ones have the coolest villains.

The league is healthiest when the Yankees are good, just like the NBA needs the Celtics and Lakers to be good and football wants the Cowboys and Steelers to be good. Their popularity goes beyond the city limits. (Seriously, how many transplanted Mariners fans do you know?) Also, the venom of the opposition is stronger. (When was the last time you heard someone say, “I don’t care who wins as long as it isn’t the Marlins!”)

So the trio of National League teams could spark interest on both coasts and the Midwest unlike any other combination of teams, and do so with distinct identities and blood enemies within their division.

The New York Mets

Always the sloppier alternative to the uptight, full-of-themselves Yankees, the Mets could embody the glamor of the big city but have a sense of humor about it. Basically, if the Yankees are Wall Street, the Mets would be the Village. Enough people are raised to despise the Yankees to make rooting for them impossible. But the Mets don’t carry that baggage with them.

They could embody the scrappy, lunch pail New Yorker, all the while taking on the challenge of their rivals in Philadelphia. And over the years, the teams from Miami (transplanted New Yorkers), Atlanta (Southerners not trusting those yankees—the team and the people) and Washington (the REAL epicenter of the country) would take their shots at the Mets. There would be wonderful geographical and cultural rivalries, plus a little bit of likable scrappy little brother quality that the Mets would have.

Alas, the team is a mess. In somevways, 2006 was the worst thing that happened to the team. As they were one Carlos Beltran swing from the World Series (and maybe taking control of New York baseball), they have been operating as if they are just one player away from the elite level of teams. The result has been a string of horrible contracts and ill-fitting players. How was it everyone on the planet Earth knew Jason Bay was the wrong fit for CitiField except the people cutting him a check?

How can a single team possibly have so many massive deals for the likes of Oliver Perez, Francisco Rodriguez and Luis Castillo and see them not only be unproductive but also untradeable? How could a team suffer back-to-back collapses like they did in 2007 and 2008 and later have the indignity of Johan Santana‘s injuries?

The Mets seem to be trying to right their ship. Sandy Alderson rebuilt the A’s and the Padres and could be the right man for the job. Terry Collins is a curious choice for manager, but maybe a change in culture is what they need. Just don’t be too rigid, Terry. These are the Mets, not the Yankees.

The Chicago Cubs

Like their team name, the Cubs need to be the cute and cuddly National League powerhouse. They have the Midwest, homemade apple pie appeal. They play in a neighborhood where you can see the houses (with advertisements on the roof) from the ballpark. You almost expect someone from one of the houses to knock on the clubhouse door with a freshly baked pecan pie “for the boys.” They play in a quaint park that looks like it has been untouched by time.

And the team itself would have that lovable quality. The fans in the bleachers would embrace their players and the faithful would call them all by their first names. And each player would go on about how great the tradition, the ivy and the fan base are as they fight to bring home a title.

May I Have Your Autograph, Please?
The payoff of being polite.

And, of course, they are the keepers of the last great baseball curse. If Red Sox fans turned the whole “Reverse the Curse” rallying cry to national prominence like they had never seen before, the Cubs’ need to win a World Series could make them the biggest team in baseball not named the Yankees.

Besides, Chicago is a hell of a lot bigger than Boston, and the Red Sox have won it twice. That storyline is getting stale. There are a whole bunch of new grandmas and grandpas who are dying without seeing their team win a World Series. This season will be 103 years and counting. (But who is counting?)

And the happy, feel-good, “Gosh darn it, we really want to win now!” approach could spark the other teams in their division. Their natural rivals, the Cardinals, have won the titles and currently have the aces the Cubs want. They could be the bullies keeping the nice, sweet Cubs from winning. You have the defending division champion Reds feeling that they are the true scrappy underdogs. Milwaukee fans to the north probably would want to beat the Cubs just to see their fans squirm some more. Houston fans, who have had their share of postseason strife, would have no patience for Cubs pity. And Pirate fans? Forget it. They would hear Cubs misery and think “Cry me a river!”

Of course the Cubs are in worse shape than the Mets. Both teams have expensive and bloated contracts that were the result of a series of failed pennant runs. And now Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, et al, are making the payroll huge and the rewards minimal. Unlike the Mets, the Cubs have yet to clean house.

Jim Hendry, the man who assembled an expensive but bad veteran team, still has his job and is making deals (like the Matt Garza trade or the Carlos Pena signing) that would only make sense if the Cubs were only a player or two away from being a contender.

They aren’t. They are a lot of players away from being a contender (and perhaps a new GM away as well). Cub fans have been waiting for more than a century for a title. It will probably take a few years longer.

The Los Angeles Dodgers

If the Mets are the scrappy underdogs from the big city, and the Cubs are the lovable neighborhood team, then the Dodgers are the glamorous team. They have stars on the field and bigger stars in the box seats and luxury suites to cut to during the game. For the casual fan who just wants to gawk over famous faces, they would turn to the Dodgers. Their park isn’t nestled into a neighborhood. It sits on a mountain overlooking the City of Angels.

Plus, their history isn’t that of losing or falling short. When the Dodgers have won, they’ve done so with some of the biggest names in the game and a steady manager guiding the way. They’ve done it with charismatic ace pitchers and steady clutch hitting. And they’ve won with a flair for the dramatic befitting a Hollywood script.

The have the world champion Giants in their division, and their fans hate everything about Los Angeles. They have the Padres to the south whose fans (when they show up) would love to knock the Dodgers off their perch. And the fans in Colorado and Arizona would just love to upset the apple cart and stick it to California.

The Dodgers of recent years got real close to the World Series and looked like they were fitting right into the classic Dodger mold. They had the style, the manager and a lot of the talent. But they desperately needed the big ace. The Clayton Kershaws and Chad Billingsleys of the world were talented, but they lacked a true No. 1 starter.

After Joe Torre arrived in Los Angeles, the 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 AL Cy Young winners all changed teams. Cliff Lee changed teams four times! CC Sabathia changed uniforms twice! Roy Halladay went elsewhere. Johan Santana, Dan Haren, John Lackey… etc., etc., etc. And none of them went to Chavez Ravine. It is no mystery why.

The McCourts can claim all they want that their reenacting of The War of the Roses had no effect on how they spent money on their team. Reality and logic paint a different picture. Reality and logic rarely lose to someone going through a painful public divorce.

So the Torre era ended and the Don Mattingly era begins. The Dodgers seem to be in even more denial than the Cubs

Now before anyone says, “How can you tell what the personalities of the teams will be unless you know who the players are?” let me make two important points:

First of all, the personality of every single professional sports team conforms with the city they play in, no matter who the players are. A Los Angeles team that wins will always be considered glamorous. A Pittsburgh championship team will be labeled “scrappy” and “blue collar” regardless of the personel.

A team like the 1979 Pirates was considered to be a tough, likable squad who reflected the Steel City. But if you took the Hall of Famers (Willie Stargell and Bert Blyleven) and superstars (like Dave Parker and John Candelaria), the crazy stars on their hats and dancing to disco music and transplanted that to the Giants, people would say they reflected the loose, crazy attitude of San Francisco.

No matter who is on the Mets, Cubs or Dodgers, the franchise’s and city’s personality will override the players. Look how Kirk Gibson went from the rough-around-the-edges, tough-as-nails Detroit Tiger to the dramatic, “Hollywood ending that can’t be written in a movie” star of the Dodgers! It was the same guy playing the same way. Different perceptions.

Secondly, and most importantly, this is about marketing and perception. The Red Sox of 2004 were portrayed as a crazy, close-knit bunch winning for the dying grandparents of New England. In truth, they were almost all cobbled together from other teams, and they won because their pitching staff was deep, not because their hair was long. It made for a nice story, but if the Red Sox bullpen wavered in the ALCS, then Dave Roberts‘ stolen base would have been a forgotten footnote.

As I said in my video about marketing the Giants, baseball needs to add juice to their fan base. (No, not THAT kind of juice.) The trio of National League powerhouses in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles should be driving the National League. It should be a shorthand of what kind of fan you are—the way being a Raider, Packer, Cowboy or Steeler fan is in football.

Now, there is hope. Lots of bad contracts are coming off the books for the Mets and Cubs after the 2011 season. And no doubt soon a new ownership will take over the Dodgers. They will have money. But then again, the problem for the Cubs and the Mets wasn’t failing to spend enough money, but spending it wisely.

Those three teams should get wise. They have a unique opportunity to define the National League for a new generation of fans.


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Jim G.
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Jim G.

Paul,
By your logic, why have any of the small-market non-“flagship” teams in the first place?  Just contract the leagues to the “profitable” teams and be happy with your television ratings.
Maybe the small markets should create their own league separate from the big markets. Sure, the superstar players will bolt for the big markets as soon as they can, but that happens now anyway.

Brandon Reinoehl
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Brandon Reinoehl
I love the excitement of the upcoming baseball season every year but I’m beyond tired of 2 things: 1.  Experts, pundits, fans, etc actually predicting Cubs success.  How can anyone take them seriously.  Losers aren’t lovable especially at this level of futility.  The Cubs are loved because of the neighborhood they play in.  It’s a great, great party and the games are a mere sideshow. 2.  Experts, pundits, fans, etc saying how good it would be for baseball that the Cubs would at least get to the World Series.  I can’t deny this but I’m still tired of it.  But… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
Jim G Having the big market teams be robust is good for the Small Market clubs and for the league as a whole. Goliaths like the Red Sox and Yankees draw bigger crowds and get more attention when they come to town. And with the possible exception of the Phillies, there is no Goliath in the National League. The whole “slaying the giant” (not the SF Giants) scenario is always the most compelling story in sport, which is why you also need the small revenue teams. The NCAA tourney is compelling when some college you’ve never heard of wins games,… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
Brandon is proving my point to a T. He would root extra hard against the Cubs and it would be more fun for him to watch the Cubs lose if they were actually good. It isn’t always about wanting your team to win. It is also about watching a team you hate lose. I was at a bar in Walla Walla Washington when the Angels eliminated the Yankees in the 2002 playoffs. You would have thought everyone there was born and raised in Orange County they were rooting for the Angels so hard. They wanted to see the mighty Yankees… Read more »
AaronB
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AaronB
This is what I hate…it’s not just baseball, but all sports.  Why do we need the Cubs to be good?  Why do we need the Dodgers to be good?  Why does everyone want the “old” powers in college football, like Michigan & Nebraska to be good?  The NFL needs a team in LA…I get so tired of it.  The NFL is doing just fine without LA, although I realize they will have time w/in 5 years.  College football has become really exciting, with new faces like TCU, VA Tech, to name couple, becoming relevant.  Baseball?  The Midwest already has a… Read more »
Eddie
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Eddie

Fire Jim Hendry.

Luis
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Luis

How was it everyone on the planet Earth knew Jason Bay was the wrong fit for CitiField except the people cutting him a check?

How can a single team possibly have so many massive deals for the likes of Oliver Perez, Francisco Rodriguez and Luis Castillo and see them not only be unproductive but also untradeable? How could a team suffer back-to-back collapses like they did in 2007 and 2008

DO you REALLY have to ask that??  A profound inability to create depth and a poor understanding of how to manage a bullpen.

MikeS
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MikeS
“The whole “slaying the giant” (not the SF Giants) scenario is always the most compelling story in sport, which is why you also need the small revenue teams.” Even if this statement ahs some economic validity, this is so freaking arrogant it turns my stomach.  22 teams in MLB do not exist so that the teams from Boston, NY, Philadelphia, Chicago and LA have something to do until the playoffs roll around.  Those same 22 teams do not exist solely to be “giant slayers.”  They do not exist to develop players for the big market teams to buy.  If MLB… Read more »
Dave Studeman
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Dave Studeman
How was it everyone on the planet Earth knew Jason Bay was the wrong fit for CitiField except the people cutting him a check? Blaming the Mets for his performance in 2010 because he didn’t “fit” in Citi Field is misleading. Jason Bay Slugging Percentage at home in 2010: .459 Jason Bay Slugging Percentage away in 2010: .354 Plus, so what if Bay’s surface stats suffer at Citi? That’s to be expected.  Every batter’s stats suffer at Citi. That doesn’t make offense less important. According to Hit Tracker, Bay hit very few cheap home runs in 2009. It was not… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
Ahhhh the NFL competitive balance argument MLB has had 9 different teams win the World Series in the last 10 years and since 2000 only the Pirates, Royals, Blue Jays, Nationals and Orioles have missed the playoffs. And yet I still have to hear about how the NFL is more balanced The NFL will never be topped in terms of TV revenues because it is perfectly designed for television. Teams play once a week. Have all the baseball fans watch just one game a week and you’ll see ratings go up. But the NFL plays their games up to the… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
MikeS
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MikeS
I saw the video. I loved it and agreed with it. This piece, obviously not so much. Baseball needs to market baseball. Not just Yankees-Red Sox. They haven’t figured out how to do that. Most casual fans don’t know who Joey Votto or Zach Grienke are but they know the Yankees middle relievers. It’s not because they are the Yankees, it’s because they are good. But they are good (in large part) because they can outspend their mistakes like no other team in sports. Why does attendance go up in small markets when the Yankees come to town? Same reason.… Read more »
Casper
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Casper
Transplanted Mariner fan here.  We’re around, but for understandable reasons we don’t talk about it much.  I do wear the hat, though, right here in the middle of Phillie country.  I suspect most people think the “S” stands for Scranton. Seriously, it seems to me that baseball isn’t supposed to be in a kind of professional rassling situation, where every team has to act out a persona in some national melodrama that gets scripted by the media.  The game is good enough without gimmickry. It’s not that I hate the villain teams of the East—I’m just sooooooooooooo tired of them. … Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
MikeS I agree with you. This is coming from a Native New Englander who lived most of his adult life in New York… there is too much Red Sox/Yankees fixation. What I wrote about the National League was the idea to create big natural rivals and the kind of teams you love to root against in each Division, creating match ups that get national attention. “In 1990 the Red Sox and Yankees were not” Actually the Red Sox won the 1990 Division Title, but I understand what you are trying to say. The A’s were the big bad team back… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
Casper, I one breath you say you don’t care about rooting against the Goliaths of the game and in the next sentence you say your heart leaps with gladness when someone sticks it to them Interesting. Also smaller audiences for the World Series means less money for those small market teams to keep their players. Build up the rivalries and make it so some small market clubs can actually have a national following. Sure the NFL can have teams like Indianapolis and New Orleans and Green Bay and Pittsburgh be big draws… but they also have a nearly 50 year… Read more »
KJOK
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KJOK

The Mets, Dodgers, and even Cubs (2 first place finishes) were all pretty good in the 1980’s, so I think we’ve already experienced this.  I don’t remember it causing any great increase in interest in baseball.

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

On the contrary I think there WAS a spike in the post season interest in 1984, 1986 and 1988

zubin
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zubin
Compare MLB to the NFL.  In the NFL, New York does have a particularly sucessful history, LA doesn’t have a team and one of the leagues most sucessful franchises calls a city of 600,000 home.  Yet the NFL has greater popularity than MLB despite the flesh covered robots that dominate their game.  Now, I do understand there are big differences in the marketability of the two sports.  Most importantly, with 81 home games per year baseball teams do require a larger population base.  However, MLB need not focus on the largest cities to market the game. In the long run… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
it is futile to compare the MLB to the NFL The NFL is designed for TV in a way that baseball could never approach. For baseball to fixate on football would be like the producers of Mad Men wondering how they will get as many viewers as American Idol It ain’t happening… even without Simon. I am not saying in this article to only grow baseball in the large media markets. I am saying having the Goliaths in the league HELPS the smaller market teams market their games. It builds rivalries and has more games where the Pittsburghs and San… Read more »
Ken
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Ken

I can agree with the article’s major points, but does it really matter?  Baseball is awash in money.  If the TV ratings and gate receipts are marginally higher, the players and owners will be slightly richer.  But I don’t see how that will affect how I enjoy the game.

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

a fair point Ken

Truth be told, I am watching baseball no matter who is good.

I am thinking of ways for baseball to stay healthy and for the smaller market clubs to have more big games on the schedule.

I’m not thinking about us. I am thinking about the many potential fans who right now don’t really follow it

Joe
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Joe
Typical elitist pig tripe. Only large market teams should be consistently competitive and the small market teams are fodder for the big boys like European Soccer. So if the Marlins, Brewers, and D-Backs became the dominant NL teams then that wouldn’t be good enough for you? “And baseball should be doing everything in its power to get those three clubs to thrive, be productive, to win and have star power.” What powers exactly are you suggesting Bud Selig/MLB front office should use to help these teams out? Give them a couple of extra draft picks? Tax breaks? This is written… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
“So if the Marlins, Brewers, and D-Backs became the dominant NL teams then that wouldn’t be good enough for you?” It would be fine for me. In terms of marketing the sport it wouldn’t be By the way, tell the fans of Arizona to sell out an NLCS game next time. “What powers exactly are you suggesting Bud Selig/MLB front office should use to help these teams out? “ Publicity. Marketing. “Shame on you for thinking the Nats, Pirates, and Padres could never make for “poor James Bond villains”. You can shame me all you want… it is hard to… Read more »
Scott
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Scott
The problem with baseball is not with TV ratings. It’s the fact that people who are baseball fans, generally only like and keep up with their team.  I’m a huge Braves fan but once they are eliminated from post season play I am usually so mad that I can’t stand to watch any more baseball.  I’ll keep up with it and watch a few innings here and there and check the internet to see who won but I’m not living and dying for every pitch like I am when the Braves are in.  I think most fans are like me.… Read more »
Zubin
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Zubin
Paul: Sorry, but I can hardly dsagree more with the “solution” you suggest.  If you want more “big games” on the schedule, the best way to achieve this would be to design a league where there is as much parity as possible.  What you are suggesting, intentionally or not, would unbalance the cost structure of the NL even further and create less parity.  Esentially you’d create two or three more Yankee or Red Sox franchises.  And while the press coverage for these two teams has been great for their fans, I have not seen it help out the Blue Jays,… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
Zubin, in case you haven’t noticed, the National League has HAD parity. Since 2006 all five NL West teams have made the post season Since 2003 four of five NL East teams have made the playoffs Since 2005 five of the six NL Central teams have made the playoffs Since 1999, nine different teams have won the NL Pennant. (Also remember that there have been 9 different World Series winners in the last 10 seasons.) Since 2001, only the Blue Jays, Nationals, Orioles, Royals and Pirates have missed the playoffs. And only the Pirates have failed to have a winning… Read more »
zubin
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zubin

Once a team hits the playoffs, the winner is determined by what is, relatively a crapshoot.  I am therefore really interested in which teams make the playoffs when dicussing parity…  And I agree that the NL has had relative parity.  My point is promoting two or three franchises in the NL (similar to the attention the Yankees or Red Sox get) would destroy that parity.

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

How?

By promoting inter division rivalries?
By having more games to circle in red on the schedule?

I was in San Diego this Labor Day weekend. The Padres were in first place. The weather was perfect and Petco is a beautiful convienient ballpark to get to.

The place was half empty.

It isn’t enough to simply root for your team to win. You also need a team to want to lose.

Scott
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Scott
Petco was probably empty on labor day because it was labor day and San Diego has some of the best beaches in the world.  And it’s free to go to the beach.  San Diego has supported the Padres for years. This year was just a weird circumstance. The economy is bad and no one thought the team would be any good.  I would like to see what the local TV and radio ratings were because I bet those were really high.  And the NBA has the least parity of any league.  Do you guys realize that since 1980 there has… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

It was a night game.
If there were 22,000, I’d be stunned

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
Scott… I am shooting a video tomorrow at the Rose Bowl about that very topic MLB has the reputation of having no parity (untrue) which brings people to say they need a salary cap… and the salary cap sports have the same teams winning over and over again. Baseball needs to market its game better, have bigger rivalries within the divisions and showcase their stars. And somehow combat the biggest complaints. The Red Sox and Yankees win every year (which they don’t) There’s no hope for the small market teams (which there is) And nobody cares but in the Northeast… Read more »
Scott
Guest
Scott
Paul, I don’t know what was up with San Diego last year then. I remember when Petco opened up they drew over 3 million and they had that one game playoff in 2007 I thought they drew pretty well that year too.  MLB needs to market itself better that is for sure. Baseball is popular all over the country but ESPN only talks about the North East teams. But if you watch the MLB draft, which I am sure you do, you will notice that a lot of the players come from California, Texas, Metro Atlanta, and Florida.  And the… Read more »
zubin
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zubin

Most divsions have a reasonable amount of parity, the obvious exception is the AL East, a divsion that has been dominated by the two teams with the largest payrolls in all of MLB.  And yes, I am aware of the Rays, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Yankees have missed the playoffs only once in the past 16 seasons and the Bo’Sox have missed only 2 of the last 8.

Making the Cubs, Mets and Dodgers into another Yankees or Red Sox simply isn’t good for MLB as a whole.

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

Remind me what team has won the AL East 2 of the last 3 years

zubin
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zubin

Didn’t I mention the Rays?
.
You really think the Rays record over the past three years is more significant than the Yankees over 16 years or the Red Sox over 8 years?

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
Actually it shows that yes indeed the notion of “No team can beat the Red Sox or Yankees” isn’t exactly valid. Actually it throws water in the whole “Yankees and Red Sox just dominate everyone” concept. You don’t like seeing the Sox and Yankees in it every year? Well in 3 of the last 5 years, your wish has been granted. Baseball needs to somehow combat this fiction that there is no competitive balance (there is. Not an opinion. A fact.) and that somehow they don’t have a product that each team doesn’t have a chance. 9 different World Series… Read more »
zubin
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zubin

Who ever wrote “No team can beat the Red Sox or Yankees”?

Um again, who wrote that?  I wrote (more or less)that the Yankees and Red Sox have dominated over the past eight years.

Again, the record of the past eight years clearly shows there has not been competitive balance in the AL East.  I really don’t get how and why you are arguing this.

Paul Francis Sullivan
Guest
Paul Francis Sullivan

How are you defining competitive balance?

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