The Major League Baseball season starts up again next week with the two New York teams (Yankees and Mets) starting the season as favourites and 2nd favourites respectively. As a result, the city could well be looking forward to the first all-New York World Series finale since 2000. Amazingly the Mets will attract a full-house of 57,000 to Shea Stadium on Monday despite a lunchtime start.
Although baseball has never garnered much interest outside of the US, Central America and parts of Asia, I have always found it a beguiling sport and one which rewards those who have the time and inclination to learn about its many quirks and statistics. I knew I had properly 'arrived' in the US when I was able to drop comments into conversation about knuckleballs, setup pitchers and double plays. Although gridiron is the most popular sport in the US, baseball is a better example in my view of real 'Americana'.
There are 30 teams in total, divided between the American League and National League, each of which in turn has Central, East and West divisions comprising 4-6 teams. The six winners of each division plus the 2nd placed team with the best overall record from each League progress to a knock-out phase culminating in the World Series (a best-of-7 game clash between the overall American League winner and National League winner).
Each team plays a total of 162 games (essentially playing every day between now and early-October) with a bias towards playing the teams in its own division firstly, and secondly the teams in its own League. Unlike the Premier League in the UK for example, one can certainly argue that a team's chances of success depends in part upon its fixture list. For example for the Mets to progress as division winners, they have to overcome the strong Atlanta Braves who have won the division in each of the past 14 seasons. The counter-argument is of course that after fully 162 games, any good luck or ill-fortune should even itself out.
In recent years a concept known as 'inter-League play' has seen a handful of matches between American League and National League teams. For example the Mets (National League) play the Yankees (American League) in a series of very popular matches which previously could only have occurred in the World Series finale.
American League games differ from their National League counterparts because in the former, teams are permitted to nominate a 'designated hitter' who is not required to field as well as hit. Likewise, the American League pitchers are not required to hit. Hence American League teams place greater emphasis on the 'slugger', a term to describe a powerful batter whose job is to score home runs and/or bring home runners-on-base. For this reason many purists (including myself) prefer watching National League baseball which emphasises a more measured approach to scoring runs, with a keener focus on base running rather than mere slugging. Moreover, National League fans get the benefit of watching a pitcher try to hit which is the baseball equivalent of watching an outfield player go in goal, an increasingly rare occurrence these days.
Unlike football in England which is rightly heralded as offering the chance for the smallest minnows to progress to the top division (witness Wigan's rapid rise), Major League Baseball is essentially a closed shop with no relegation/promotion issues. The worst fate for a baseball 'franchise' is being closed down and replaced by an ambitious new set-up; the Montreal Expos for example were replaced by the Washington Nationals at the start of the 2005 season. Given the rapid shifts in population that occur in the US, there are several rapidly growing urban areas which are desperate to take over a franchise from cities in decline eg. Detroit, Kansas City, Minneapolis. It will probably not be too long before the likes of Salt Lake City, Sacramento and San Antonio demand a baseball franchise.
It is easy to be disparaging about the closed nature of American sport, but in an excellent book called National Pastime (by Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist), the authors examine the evolution of baseball in the US and football elsewhere, and the pros and cons of each.
The most obvious disadvantage of England's football pyramid is the risk-averseness it engenders given the damaging and highly visible decline of those teams that 'broke the bank' but didn't get the results they hoped for. It encourages an emphasis upon short-term results instead of long-term planning, evidenced perhaps in the ridiculously high turnover of club managers. Whilst the ability of the likes of Wigan (and Charlton) to progress through the ranks adds to the romance of the sport, once they reach the top division their main concern is remaining there and not trying to win it. Indeed Americans will look at you with amazement when you tell them that 20,000 fans have paid out hard-earned cash for Charlton season tickets knowing full well that our chances of winning the title are essentially zero.
American sport has also done a reasonable job at 'levelling the playing field' to some degree to ensure that the same teams do not dominate year after year. This is usually achieved through a combination of income redistribution, college draft priority, and payroll caps. Again, although it is highly unlikely that any of these could be introduced in English football given the relative weakness of the FA compared to the big clubs, at least Peter Varney has been bold enough to at least ensure the topic remains on the agenda. If the G18 clubs had their way, they would probably be happy to pursue a US-style 'closed shop' via a European League, but fortunately for now fans still turn up in bigger numbers for domestic clashes than international ones. It is hard to sell the 'product' to broadcasters when there is an underlying fear of showing games in quarter-full stadia.
In baseball, although the New York Yankees dominate in terms of World Series wins (26 in total), most of these came when legends like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig were strutting their stuff in the Bronx. In the last five years alone, the World Series has been won variously by the Chicago White Sox (2005), Florida Marlins (2003) and Anaheim Angels (2002), none of whom would have been highly-fancied at the start of the season. In England, the domination by just a handful of clubs is rapidly leading to a severe lack of competitiveness which will surely begin to drive fans away.