Rule change: Free the Minors

OK, I admit I’m kind of cheating a bit on this one because, unlike the other four rule changes, I don’t have anything specific in mind here. This is something kind of unconventional I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and it’s something that seems particularly timely right now. So, instead of a specific rule change, I’m offering a challenge to the Brilliant Readers.

Your mission: Free the minor leagues.

Here’s the starting point: If you add up the metropolitan areas surrounding the 30 Major League teams -- even if you go pretty liberal and include, say, Columbus and Hartford because they are relatively close to Major League baseball -- you will come up with a number that is less than half the U.S. population. I did a little figuring and came up with about 146 million out of 314 or so million people in the United States, but you can do the math yourself. I live in Charlotte, which has the largest metropolitan population in America not served by a Major League Baseball team. San Antonio is right behind. Las Vegas. Memphis is in there. There are many very big cities that have no real access to Major League Baseball. And, beyond that, there are many, many, many smaller cities that still have a lot of people. Like I say, you’re talking about 168 million or so people without direct access to MLB.

So what are people in places like Charlotte supposed to do with baseball? This question, I think, cuts to the heart of what Keith Olbermann talked about here, what countless people have written about, and what most people have come to accept as true: Baseball has become a regional sport.

The World Series television ratings tell the story nightly. Ratings from the first two games of the World Series were up from last year and so have drawn some positive reviews. I certainly do not understand television ratings as well as the excellent Maury Brown, so I take it on father that overall this might be good news. But I see a lot of bad news here. For one thing, everyone knows St. Louis and Boston both have much larger fan bases than last year’s teams, San Francisco and Detroit. So the numbers being up a bit doesn’t really impress me. And let’s face some a other troubling facts:

-- More people watched Big Bang Theory than the World Series and it wasn’t that close.

-- Twice as many people watched Sunday Night’s Regular season game between Denver and Indianapolis than watched the World Series.

-- Well, Broncos-Colts was the Peyton Manning game, but Monday Night’s Giants-Vikings matchup was about as uninteresting as you could draw up, and that game drew about the same ratings that the World Series drew.

-- The first two games of the NBA Finals rated higher than the first two games of the World Series.

-- The Red Sox ALONE should be drawing much higher ratings. The last time they were in the World Series was 2007, it was on FOX, they were playing a Colorado Rockies team with a limited fan base -- and they got two or three million more viewer in each of the first two games. In 2004, the Red Sox played the Cardinals -- who obviously have an enormous following in the Midwest -- and that was also on FOX, and they got about TEN MILLION more viewers each of the first two nights.

Why has baseball lost so many viewers? There are many factors involved, and many theories beyond. It’s obvious that fans have more choices than they’ve ever had before -- not only on the countless cable television channels but also various other new technologies. The World Series on Thursday night wasn’t only up against an NFL game, the Big Bang Theory and several hundred other shows and whatever people happened to DVR, but it was also against The Avengers, which is streaming for free on Amazon Prime. There are Netflix original shows. There are video games, there are iPads and other tablets. And there’s the timing too. The World Series start late, so they are competing against sleep and school the next morning. Baseball also has a pace of play problem -- not only are the games too long, but much of the length is tied up in tedious pitching changes and dreary last-second timeouts called by the hitter. For many, baseball just isn’t gripping television.

Well, everyone has a theory. And one of those theories -- one I personally agree with -- is that baseball is just not a national game anymore. It is doing brilliantly well regionally. Attendance in Major League ballparks is fantastic. I talked about how in 2004 about 10 million more people a night watched the Cardinals-Red Sox World Series. But attendance across baseball this year was actually a bit HIGHER than in 2004. Several teams have cut massive local and regional television deals. And Major League Baseball is probably better placed on the Internet than any other league with MLB.com and the colossal video streaming operation they run. If you live in a big league city, baseball is doing just fine in your neighborhood.

But as a national product? No. Again, a million theories, and I’d like throw out a quirky one (finally, we get to the point). I think the way baseball has handled the minor leagues has played a big part in killing the game as a national sport.

Let’s get back to Charlotte for a moment. Charlotte has a large metropolitan population of well over two million people. And the city’s baseball entry point is ... nowhere. Atlanta is four hours away and there are a number of Braves fans in Charlotte -- more than any other MLB team, I suspect -- but there’s really very little passion for the Braves for obvious. Charlotte is like most other cities in the United States. They want to root for a TEAM OF THEIR OWN. Sure, Indianapolis has a lot of Reds fans, Oklahoma City has a lot of Royals fans, Little Rock has a lot of Cardinals fans, Omaha has a lot of Cubs fans. But everyone knows that passion isn’t anything close to what it would be for a local team.

Charlotte, of course, has a local baseball team. That is the Charlotte Knights, a Class AAA team. Almost nobody cares about them. They are moving into a downtown stadium next year, and so people expect a little bit of buzz about them for a while but that buzz will fade and, once again, almost nobody will care about them. Is that because they are a minor league team? Maybe. I think differently.

I think it is because the Knights are not a REAL baseball team.

This is the core of minor league baseball in 2013. The Knights don’t play for Charlotte. They play for the Chicago White Sox. They used to play for the Cleveland Indians. They used to play for the Chicago Cubs. They used to play for the Baltimore Orioles. Now it’s the White Sox. Like it matters.

The White Sox make every single determination about the Charlotte Knights. They decide who plays in Charlotte and who doesn’t. They decide how many pitches each Charlotte pitcher throws and what positions each Charlotte player plays. If a player is hitting well, they will take that player away. If a pitcher is pitching well, they will take that player away. If a pitcher is throwing a two-hit shutout and he reaches his pitch-limit, they will take him out in the middle of an at-bat. If a player is having trouble bunting, they will have him bunt in bizarre situations. If a pitcher is working on developing a change-up, they will have throw it even if he can’t get hitters out. If the Knights have an excellent shortstop but the parent team already has one -- they will move that shortstop to second or third base without thinking twice. If there’s a super exciting prospect in Class AA, there’s a good chance he will skip right over Charlotte.

NONE of this is done to help the Charlotte Knights win a game. And that’s because: The White Sox and every other parent team do not CARE if the Charlotte Knights win a game. Oh sure, they’d prefer winning the same way you’d prefer your rental car to be red. It would be nice. Some teams even try to build winners because they would like their minor leaguers to have winning experience. But that’s not the same as trying to win. They really don’t really care. The sole purpose of the minor leagues is to develop players for the major leagues. That’s all. It’s not to build interest for baseball. It’s not to develop fan bases. It’s not to give fans exciting and competitive baseball to watch. Charlotte doesn’t have a competitive baseball team. Charlotte has a training facility, and people are allowed to come watch.

And this is true in Buffalo and Durham and Indianapolis and Albuquerque and Austin and Salt Lake City and Tucson and Harrisburg and Richmond and Jacksonville and Mobile and Tulsa and San Antonio and Modesto and Lynchburg and Salem and Winston-Salem and dozens and dozes of other great American cities. Many of these cities have great fans who come out to the games and root for the teams and care despite the system. But they know, deep down, that they don’t get baseball, not the real stuff, not the highly competitive baseball that Major League teams get. They don’t get a general manager trying to build a great team, don’t get a manager trying to coax everything out of his players, don’t get players who are there to win.

This has been going on for years and years, of course -- Bill James among others has railed against it -- but now it’s such a part of baseball that no one even thinks about it. People will go to minor league games -- more than 41 million did in 2013 -- but it’s much more for the experience, for something to do on a summer night. Few follow the team closely, rabidly, because there isn’t any real point in it. The team will do things every single game that they would not do if winning mattered. These are essentially exhibition games. it used to be different. In 1949 -- when the country was about half as populous and minor league teams had a lot more autonomy -- more than 40 million people attended minor league and Negro Leagues baseball. That’s about the same as this year. There were many more teams, and there was community pride locked up in it, and PEOPLE CARED ABOUT BASEBALL.

It’s just not like that now. There’s little drawing a person in Charlotte to baseball. The Charlotte Knights are trying to sell tickets to their new stadium -- what can they sell? They don’t know who will be playing for Charlotte. If they get a good player, they know he won’t be here long. They aren’t trying to win, so they can’t push that angle. They can try to sell baseball, but many, many more kids are playing soccer than baseball. Instead, they do what minor league teams are stuck doing -- they create a new logo, offer the widest videoboard in minor league baseball and promise a great experience for you to make business deals. The minor leagues used to create baseball fans all over America. But it has been a long, long time since that was true.

Compare this to football or basketball. Obviously, those sports don’t have a huge organized minor league system like baseball. But that’s OK -- they don’t get their talent from the minor leagues. They get their talent from colleges. And, to state the obvious, those colleges are actual teams that try desperately to win. Alabama ... Ohio State ... Oklahoma ... Florida State ... Notre Dame ... they obviously aren’t controlled by the NFL. They run their own programs and they have gigantic fan bases who are every bit as passionate about their team as Steelers or Packers fans are about their own. Perhaps more.

Kansas ... North Carolina ... Michigan State ... Kentucky ... Gonzaga ... they obviously aren’t controlled by the NBA. They run their own programs and they have gigantic fan bases who are every bit as passionate about their teams as Knicks or Lakers fans are about their own. Perhaps more.

The point here is not to get into the issues of college sport but to point out that through college sports (and, in many places, through high schools sports) people learn to LOVE THE SPORT. They learn to love the sport not through binoculars focused on a distant professional team but through something that is right there in their own backyard. It’s something baseball simply does not have. Yes, there is college baseball, but the best high school players almost all go to the minor leagues, and the college game is played with aluminum bats, and it simply does not have anything close to the reach or pull as college football or basketball. Heck, this year, the Little League World Series drew almost as many viewers as the College World Series.

I personally think that the people charged with baseball’s future should think very hard about all this. I’m not saying there’s an easy solution. The minor league system is firmly entrenched, and I suspect the major league teams like it just the way it is, and there is so much history of overcome. They’re not going to just completely overhaul the system to give minor league cities the freedom to make their own choices, run their own teams, play to win and become real, live baseball teams.

But there must be some ways to give SOME autonomy back to the minor league teams and allow them to matter again. There must be some way to give cities in America their own baseball teams that they can follow and passionately support. The system right now is set up so that much of America is given no reason whatsoever to love baseball. And you get the sense that much of America is responding and watching something else.