Suicide Squeeze

The stadium scene.
May 31 2001 9:00 PM

Suicide Squeeze

Baseball needs a dose of reality TV.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Baseball is in trouble. TV ratings are down, labor strife is on the horizon, and the unequal distribution of wealth among teams all but ensures a permanent class of cellar-dwellers. America's least hurried sport needs a quick fix. And it may soon get one: Commissioner Bud Selig is considering "contraction," eliminating up to four of the league's impoverished teams. (Click here to read a "Sports Nut" on the subject.) It would be baseball's first contraction since the National League booted four of its 12 teams in 1899.

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Under the schemes being bandied about, the ax would fall on small-market clubs plagued by low attendance, low payrolls, and (usually) the concomitant low winning percentage. The question of which teams to disband would be a delicate matter, decided only after extensive consultations. Three-fourths of the owners would have to concur before any changes could take place. Unfortunately, by delegating the question of contraction to the standard array of committees, panels, and discussions, Selig is turning a potential ratings bonanza into something that's as exciting as a Nebraska legislative hearing.

Baseball should throw out its prissy organizational rules and let contraction's victims be determined on the playing field. Instead of letting the guys who got baseball into its mess decide whom to kill, baseball should adopt an elimination system. It would be simple: The worst team—baseball's weakest link, if you will—gets the boot at the end of every season. Goodbye, dull old Game of the Week. Hello, Major League Survivor.

Elimination must be complete and thorough. Forget the love of the game. Baseball needs to mine America's lust for blood. The players wouldn't be allowed to re-sign elsewhere, the owners would lose their investment, and the fans would lose their heroes. The cozy local ballpark would become a local Colosseum. Is there a better way to connect with the reality-TV generation?

Turning contraction into a survival-of-the-fittest contest could single-handedly solve baseball's attendance problems. These days, there's pretty much no reason for a fan in, say, Tampa Bay to go to a game after about June, because the Devil Rays are sure to be woefully behind. But if contraction meant that the players on baseball's losingest team faced the very real danger of being thrown out of their jobs, the home stretch would make last-place fans eager to show up.

Ditto TV viewership. These days, fewer and fewer self-respecting couch potatoes will tune in to a distant game between two teams they don't know anything about. But when players face the danger of permanent, irrevocable elimination, even viewers who hate baseball could be sucked into the melodrama. Imagine the syrupy sequences between innings: Will an eliminated rookie have to go back to his teen-age job at the Stop 'N' Shop? Could Vladimir Guerrero be sent back to the Dominican Republic if his Expos stay true to their dismal tradition? Is aging superstar Fred McGriff resting on his millions, content to let his furious teammates face the knife? If America fell for a cast of sociopaths playing dull immunity challenges in the Australian Outback, they would fall for this, too.

The real danger might be that contraction-by-elimination would become too popular after the four seasons necessary to shrink the league. But there's an easy fix for that. After paring down to the desired size, baseball's owners could start adding new expansion teams—and still kick out one club a year at season's end. That way, the sport could penetrate the nation's baseball-deprived areas without thinning baseball's limited talent pool or sacrificing drama.

With elimination baseball, everybody wins. Owners—26 of them, at least—see their revenues go up thanks to the ratings boom that elimination will spark. Players—the ones on non-loser teams, at least—will profit from the even-more-lucrative free-agent system that the revenue increase would subsidize. Fans can watch the fear of God put into pampered free agents. It's a sure thing for almost everybody. And that's a lot more than the number of folks who like baseball as it is.

Michael Schaffer is an associate editor at U.S. News & World Report.

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