by John Furgele
Some call July and August the dead zone in sports. Basketball and hockey, with its long post seasons have ended, baseball’s second half has just begun and for the football obsessed nation, training camp hasn’t started. You can have training camp, for the record, both NFL and college football don’t really begin until September.
Summer flies by of course, especially in the Northeast where another long winter, was, well, long. For the record, there have been some interesting developments that have taken place in this the early summer.
The women’s World Cup was a huge success. Despite forcing the ladies to play games on field turf, attendance in Canada was very good. The Germany-United States semifinal drew 51,000 plus to old Olympic Stadium in Montreal and another big crowd watched the United States blow out Japan in the final at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver. Women’s soccer may never convert the masses in this country to fans, but Americans enjoy big events and the 15.2 TV rating demonstrated this.
Soccer continues to grow in this country, and even though the true meat and potatoes sports fan will never accept and acknowledge this, the numbers don’t lie. Games on ESPN and Fox Sports have seen increased ratings. Rather than scatter the games, Major League Soccer created Soccer Sunday and that means a doubleheader each week. Attendance at games continues to do well with many teams playing at or very near capacity. Believe it or not, this is the 20th season of Major League Soccer, and with more kids playing and teams becoming part of the fabric of their communities, soccer in America is here to stay.
Baseball still has most of summer’s attention and even though the game, with many young stars, is in good shape, it amazes me how little talk it generates. If you listen to sports talk radio, the lack of baseball talk is stunning. ESPN, NBC, CBS and Fox Sports radio virtually ignore baseball talk, choosing to focus on issues like domestic violence, college football, the NFL and perhaps the most concerning to MLB; the NBA. The NBA may have overtaken MLB as the nation’s number two sport. The NBA has always done a better job of marketing its stars and now, the TV ratings suggest that more Americans prefer the NBA over MLB. In the long run, MLB will be fine because regionally it does well. The Kansas City Royals, for example are generating huge local ratings and in the end, baseball will never be truly neglected by Americans. It has been around too long, it is too American and because of that, Americans will never abandon it. But, those that run the sport can’t be happy to have the Deondre Jordan-Mark Cuban saga garner more attention than Mike Trout and tight playoff races.
Rob Manfred, in his first season as commissioner, is putting his stamp on the game. His main goal is to speed it up and use the clock more. Purists always celebrate the timelessness of the game, but America has changed. We are in a hurry and more than anything, we want to move on to the next thing. Manfred realizes this, and if he can convince the players, he will continue to try and speed up the game. This year’s Home Run Derby used a timed format, and even though the Derby does nothing for me, it was an improved event over previous years.
Baseball’s All-Star Game is still the best of them all, which isn’t saying much because the others are really bad. Well, the Major League Soccer All-Star Game, which pits the MLS All-Stars against a team like Aresenal is quite good. Unfortunately, because Cincinnati was the host, “Pete Rose talk,” took most of the attention. Curt Schilling said it best, stating that “he was tired of Pete Rose and all the attention he garners.” Rose will always be popular. He played the game the right way, persevered and retired with the most hits of any player in history. But, he violated the cardinal rule when he bet on the game as a manager and if recent allegations are true, a player. Rose will never be inducted into the Hall of Fame, so let’s move on, there’s nothing to see here.
Manfred also hinted that baseball may be willing to expand at some point in the future. Personally, I think this is a great idea. Because it’s played every day, the sport needs even numbered teams in each league. Expanding by two would give the American and National League 16 teams each. That would eliminate daily interleague play which all teams would be happy with. Baseball remains the only sport with two different sets of rules for each league and that is beyond annoying. Before, when there were 14 teams in the AL and 16 in the NL, interleague play was condensed to two times per year. That way, teams could plan. They could call up a player to serve as the DH for NL teams, but now, it is too random. Manfred can probably sell expansion to the owners more than he can sell adding the DH to National League owners. The Gary Cohens of the world be damned, the DH should be added to the National League, but resistance remains, so why fight for it? Someday, it will naturally happen, but until then, why waste our collective breaths?
Expansion would give MLB many tasty options. They could realign divisions if they choose to spice things up. They could create four eight team divisions, eight four team divisions, or they could follow my suggestion and create two 16 game “tables,” in each league. That way, each team would get an equal chance to play one another. Under the table, the Royals, for example, could play each AL team 10 times and then play 12 interleague games. The top six teams could make the playoffs with classic 3/6 and 4/5 first round matchups. We really don’t need to see Yankees-Red Sox 19 times each season.
If baseball does expand, the proverbial question is where? Manfred seems to have a soft spot for Montreal, a city that baseball mistreated and then relocated the old Expos to Washington. Of course, Montreal needs a new stadium and there will always be concern about the value of the Canadian dollar. There are the usual cast of characters like Charlotte, Portland and others but it will come down to money. The southeast United States is intriguing because Atlanta is the team for much of the area, so in some ways, Charlotte makes sense. I would like to see baseball return to Montreal. The city has 1.8 million people, more than enough to make it work. And, how about a division featuring Montreal, Toronto, Boston and New York should a eight division four team scenario be implemented?
Finally, if summer has you down sports wise, the Saratoga racing season is six days away. Horse racing is what it is, but Saratoga and Del Mar in California cannot be ignored. And, with American Pharoah getting ready to race again, this could be a summer where the Sport of Kings gets a bit more attention than usual.