Baseball, for all its traditions, is lacking in the showmanship that the NBA and NFL have for non-game-related television specials.
This week the NBA had one of those: The draft lottery. Essentially it is a dozen or so men sitting behind what looks like the NBA version of Match Game to find out how ping pong balls bounced in an off screen room. We don’t even get to see the balls bounce like a local lottery drawing.
All but one of the men will remain silent the entire show. Presumably they all came with a makeshift uniform featuring the most coveted college or high school star’s name on it that will never be seen.
It is silly but riveting television. It gets people talking about basketball and its future. The NBA and NFL also share the crazy spectacle of their respective drafts. Fans actually attend the event where a giant clock counts down to the next pick. People in the crowd go crazy or boo based on their take on a college player that chances are they have never seen play live. And, incredibly, analysts break down the draft as it happens, as if anyone can know for sure which players are going to pan out and which players will be Greg Oden.
They are gigantic events in the NBA and NFL calendar year. And baseball does not have an equivalent. The winter meetings are covered on MLB Network and ESPN, but how compelling is that to watch? Basically you see a panel of experts talking while Ken Rosenthal runs around a hotel lobby like Charlton Heston at the end of Soylent Green trying to get a scoop.
Recently the amateur draft has been televised, but that is a monumental snore even for a baseball fan like me. Bud Selig walks up to the podium and announces a player's name. If he's are a high school player, there is no way to know what kind of competition he had to face. “He batted .750 with an OPS of 1.993 for his high school team.” Great. Who was pitching? Someone with a 50 mile per hour fastball?
College hitters put up gaudy numbers but will they adjust to a wood bat? And college pitchers will get people excited, but will be put on a regimen where they can throw only three pitches a month until they are 32.
Part of the reason the NBA and NFL drafts work is that fans have at least a passing knowledge of some of the big stars. The NCAA Tournament and the BCS bowls act as makeshift coming-out parties for the drafts' stars. And chances are the first-round picks will not only make the team but will be contributing the next season. In baseball the top picks will not see the majors for a few years, if at all.
Familiarity mixed with the spectacle is the key for any such sports special. Which is why the trade deadline has the best potential for a TV special.
As the trade deadline goes now, it is spread throughout the league with a ticker scrolling beneath an ESPN or MLB Network broadcast. Players are playing games, not knowing if they are going to be yanked out of a game. (Remember Jose Canseco being pulled from the on deck circle in the middle of a game to be told he was shipped off to Texas in 1992?)
Instead of the loose bits of information floating baseball, concentrate it. Rent out Radio City Music Hall or the theater at Madison Square Garden. Better yet, have it rotate from city to city each year. And have the teams have a day off. (In my previous post, I suggested having the All-Star Game at the start of the season, so perhaps this could be the needed respite for players midseason.)
On the Monday after the last weekend of July, all the general managers (and agents, scouts, managers and ubiquitous former players like Rollie Fingers) arrive at the city. There are autograph seekers, players honored and lots of rumors floating around. And in the middle of the venue there is a gigantic clock, counting down to the absolute trade deadline.
Cameras show GMs on their cell phones and going over to their respective “War Room” tables. Twitter rumors run rampant and the crowd buzzes as each rumor sounds more and more factual.
And when each trade is official, Bud Selig comes to the podium to announce the deal. Everyone hushes, Peter Gammons stops giving his commentary to hear what the deal is.
“The Seattle Mariners trade Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers for Justin Smoak and a bunch of other people you’ve never heard of.”
The crowd cheers. The Yankee fans boo. Bobby Valentine can’t believe it. And each general manager is whisked into an interview room to talk about the trade.
A gigantic board keeps track of the trades and the rumors fly around. Teams wanting the big fish scramble to make a counter move. All the while the gigantic clock ticks down. As it gets into the final 15 minutes, a flurry of trades are made that are instantly broken down by the experts. Players reactions are heard on the phone. No doubt Curt Schilling will have something to say.
The crowd counts down the final 30 seconds and maybe a final deal or two are announced, but they have to be delivered to the commissioner before the clock strikes zero. Essentially it can create a flurry of activity that would be a combination of fantasy baseball and the finale of Trading Places.
The clock ticks down and that is it. And here is the newest wrinkle. That would not only be the waiver wire deadline for trades, but also the deadline to have players on the roster for the postseason.
As it is set up now, the confusing waiver wire deadline takes place in July. But teams have until the end of August to add players who are eligible for postseason play. But the trade deadline special would combine the two. Any outside help to patch holes on a roster must be made with two months to spare. That means picking up added depth. That means anticipating which players on the roster could break down.
And teams on the fence of contention would have to make a choice. Do they cut bait and build for the next year or realize that they can pull a 2007 Colorado Rockies and make a run for the pennant?
It would add a sense of urgency to the trades made and make the players on a postseason roster to have spent at least a third of the season with the club. Afterwards, players can still be traded and moved, but would not be able to play with the club in October.
Is that harsh? Perhaps. Would it give the deadline more pressure? Of course it would and make it more dramatic.
Think nobody would watch such an event? Remember when ESPN first offered to televise the NFL draft, the idea was considered nuts. Now it is considered to be one of the highlights of the sports calendar.
The trading deadline special would create a new celebration for baseball and its fans and would involve familiar players and the pressure of a pennant race.
It’s worth a shot. It could be a heck of a show.
References and Resources
Baseball Reference, CNNSI.com
Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.