Major League Baseball released its schedule for 2015 this week. This is the kind of late-season event that is only of interest to the most intense fans. Not too many casual observers of the game are interested in knowing who their team will open against next April, whether their team will be home over July 4th or when their team will first meet their most hated rival in 2015. Nonetheless, the schedule is a reminder of both the length and complexity of the baseball season as it is now constructed.
The regular baseball season now extends over six full months: The first regular season game is scheduled for April 5, and the last for October 4. The World Series is not expected to start until October 28, a full 24 days after the season ends, and will almost certainly extend into November again. For those of us for whom there is no such thing as too much baseball, this is a fine arrangement, but seven months of baseball is a lot and does not come without a cost.
The most obvious cost is that by the time the World Series arrives, it is sufficiently cold in many parts of the country that the quality of play on the field is affected. Additionally, the cold weather in the Northeast and the Midwest during the post-season means that fans who in some cases pay hundreds of dollars for World Series tickets end up cold and uncomfortable. For most fans this is not a major problem, but it is yet another disincentive to bring young children to the World Series and another way that baseball is not reaching out as effectively as it might to the next generation of fans.
The baseball season takes six months because each team plays 162 games in somewhere from 178-183 days. The requirement for days off and the de facto elimination of doubleheaders have both contributed to this situation. To the extent this is a problem, it is because it limits the MLB at a time when it is beginning to explore things like more international play and the World Baseball Classic (WBC) far more earnestly than in the past. A regular season that lasts six months, for example, makes it much more difficult to schedule the WBC during a time when players are not either resting, particularly their arms, from the regular season or already deep into spring training. This is particularly relevant in an era where more attention is paid to pitcher throwing injuries and the need for pitchers to rest their arms for substantial periods of time. The WBC can never reach its real potential as a truly elite international tournament as long as most of the best pitchers are kept out of it; and the long season ensures most of the best pitchers will not participate in tournament, next scheduled for 2017.
Similarly, in recent years some teams have opened the season in Japan and Australia. There is also talk of a big league games being played in Europe as early as 2015. Playing games in distant locations helps MLB build its global brand and generates excitement for the game in places where it is not strongly entrenched. Japan obviously has a long baseball history, but Australia and the Netherlands, the European country most likely to host game in the near future, do not. The long season makes it difficult to play these games as it is only possible to do this at the beginning of the year usually opening overseas a full week or so before the season begins in North America. This truncates spring training and causes other inconveniences for the teams playing the games.
These problems are not difficult to solve. The obvious solution is to shorten the season to 154 games as it was for most of the 20th century. This would mean, among other things, having to address issues involving single season landmarks and records, but changes in how the game is played as well as the steroid era have altered the record book beyond the point where fans could get too upset about that. An even easier solution would be for each team to play seven doubleheaders a year. They could all be played on Sunday and could be followed by a day off as Mondays are already a frequent off day. The teams themselves could determine the pricing and ticketing approach for those events. The long season, as currently constructed, limits the ability of MLB to innovate and expand into new markets, while increasing the likelihood that the most important games of the year are played in weather conditions that are not enjoyable for players or fans. These do not represent immediate concerns for baseball, but over time could be damaging for the game and its ability to grow.