Legends On Deck

Blue Jays, April Weather and Early Season Opportunities

The Toronto Blue Jays announced that they will open their regular season in their Spring Training home, Dunedin (FL).  Due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions in Canada, the Blue Jays played their 2020 season (60 games) in Buffalo (NY).  Policy restrictions still remain in place, leaving the Blue Jays without a regular season home.

The Blue Jays franchise has decided to play their home games in Dunedin through the beginning of May.  At that point, they will reevaluate where they will play the remainder of their home schedule.  The Toronto Raptors (NBA) are currently playing their home games in Tampa. The Jays playing their games in Florida may open the door to possibilities that could help solve early season MLB scheduling problems.

The Weather Problem

Several years back, I wrote an article outlining the weather challenges that cold weather cities face in early April.  Some of the solutions I put forward involved scheduling home games for teams in warm weather cities or those with retractable roof (or domed) stadiums.  Shortening the schedule to 154 games (from 162) and scheduling double-headers were other ideas.

What I did not consider is possibility of keeping teams at their Spring Training location for the first two weeks of the season.  This would buy time for the cold weather teams to avoid the rain/snow-outs that the early season brings.  Under such a plan, some teams would return for Opening Day in their home ballparks, sometime in the middle of April.  The regular season, however, would begin with a Cactus League and Grapefruit League tournament.

More Than An Extended Spring Training

Imagine if MLB started their regular season with tournament play, where teams in Arizona and Florida competed for an early season championship.  The winner of the “Cactus Cup” in Arizona and “Grapefruit Bowl” in Florida could meet in, say Texas, for an early season three game championship series.  The tournament would span the first two weeks of the regular season.  It would have to look more like the College World Series, with both a winners and losers bracket.  This would allow for teams to continue to play even if they lose their games.

The advantage of this kind of tournament is two-fold.  Yes, it addresses the weather problems that so many northern cities face.  But, it also heightens the level of interest in early season baseball.  Sure, there’s an allure with Opening Day across MLB, but other April games are sparsely attended.  Interest in baseball generally heats up as the weather does.  There would be plenty of support for such a plan in Arizona and Florida, as this would mean two more weeks of positive economic impact in their Spring Training communities.  Dedicated fans might travel to Opening Day of the Cactus or Grapefruit League tournament and then return to their hometown for Opening Day festivities as well.

Improve the Format, Leave the Game

Two opening days, tournament style play and early season championship games would make for a very exciting start to the MLB season.  Changes to the Florida State League‘s schedule for the 2021 season pushes the FSL Opener into May.  Arizona ballparks are free as well.  This opens the window of opportunity for MLB to begin the regular season in a unique way.

In recent years, there’s been so many proposals to change the game of baseball in effort to “broaden” it’s appeal.  Efforts to speed up the game with a pitch clock, require  relief pitcher to face at a three batter minimum or start extra innings with a runner on second base are proposals to attract new fans.  People who do not like to watch baseball aren’t going to change their mind if the games are two and a half hours rather than three.  When you play a 162 game schedule, you have to make a bigger effort to make each game more meaningful.

Think of what drives casual fan to football.  Football games are played once a week, college on Saturday and the NFL on Sunday.  Every game is unique and is a “big game” because they only play 12 or 16 of them.  Casual baseball fans might enjoy a night at the ballpark on a warm, sunny Summer weekend afternoon or evening, but they do not tune in nightly, as the core fan base does.  The great thing about an early season tournament is that it would get baseball junkies fired up about analysis, predictions and early high stakes games, while at the same time attracting casual fans.

Solving Two Issues at Once

There is little argument that baseball has weather challenges in the early season.  It’s cold in many cities, games get delayed or rescheduled.  While the Blue Jays may be starting their season in Dunedin for reasons unrelated to weather, their situation presents an opportunity for MLB to think about how they begin the regular season.  My proposal to begin the regular season in Arizona and Florida certainly helps address the weather concerns.  It also has the potential to generate real interest in the early weeks of the season.  College Football has their destination kickoff games.  College Basketball hosts tournaments to begin the season.  Major League Soccer restarted their season in 2020 with a tournament.  It would make major noise across the sports world if MLB took a bold step and created an exciting, early season tournament before clubs head north for the remainder of the season.

Brian Koss
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