Welcome to The Opener, where you get a fresh, current story every weekday morning during the regular season to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
On Tuesday, the athletic reported the NBA is considering implementing an in-season tournament that will be separate from the regular season and postseason structure. American sports viewers may not be familiar with such a concept, but football fans know it well.
The most famous example is the England FA Cup, an annual knockout tournament featuring the best professional clubs in the country, making them some of the best teams in the world given the status of English football. It also includes semi-professional teams from non-leagues composed of players who must have second jobs to earn a living.
The magic of the FA Cup, which consists of 14 rounds, lies in the premise that any of the more than 700 participating teams could hoist the trophy. In reality, no team outside of the top two divisions has ever done this, or even made it to the finals. But the chance is there.
I’m not sure if such a concept would be particularly appealing to American basketball, given that the NBA has only one affiliated minor league tier (the G League) and essentially uses the university as the most robust training ground for the professional ranks. Where are they going to get more teams besides the G League? Your local YMCA? But I do know of another sport that is popular here in the US that could use such an idea.
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This sport has 120 teams in the top four minor league tiers that were just decimated by a relentless reduction in teams and could definitely use an influx of cash. This sport has struggled to establish many of its young stars as commercially marketable, in part because a few years after they were drafted they are tucked away in the minors, away from the public eye. And this sport – critical from an entertainment perspective to this endeavor – has a penchant for unexpected results on any given day (only last week, the pirates took two out of three of the evaders†
I’m surprised those in power haven’t done this yet (although I’m far from the first person to suggest it). You would think Rob Manfred would easily win anywhere he could get one right now. And it really is just that, at least from the fan’s perspective.
Implementing a cup competition would open up the opportunity to see the game’s prospects in MLB parks, play against MLB players and start their hype train when they are mostly out of sight and out of the casual fan’s heart. . Conversely, it would take MLB teams to iconic minor league parks. Imagine, say, a matchup between the Boston Red Sox and Durham Bulls at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home of the Blue Monster. The novelty of seeing the sport’s biggest stars play in some of the country’s coziest minor league venues might just be more fun, as we saw with last year’s Field of Dreams game.
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Speaking of which, how about having the newly constructed Field of Dreams stadium serve as the venue for the championship game? That beauty should use MLB more than once a year. If we really want to go crazy, the competition could include independent clubs and the Savannah Bananas. Imagine Shohei Ohtani playing Banana Ball! Even the random draw to determine matchups can be an event for fans to tune in to on MLB Network. Leave Portland Pickles mascot Dillon T. Pickle announces the results! (Teams would be blocked from playing against their minor-league affiliates.)
There would be logistical issues to sort out. The regular season of Baseball already has 162 games. Even if the major league teams get byes for the first few rounds and only have to navigate a six-game path to the finals, it can be hard to find room in the schedule for those extra games.
To that I say: shorten the regular competition to 154 games. Or maybe just cut a week or so off spring training and start the season earlier; cutting much more than that this spring didn’t seem to affect pitchers’ ability to build their arms too much. Perhaps a reduced degree of both could do the trick. Then, about once a month, have a collective day off for league games and use it to play the American Baseball Cup, with another day off before or after the cup game to ease travel hassles.
Side note: I initially thought that a mid-season tournament during an extended All-Star intermission might be an option, with the first few rounds taking place between the lower teams during the early part of the intermission and the final rounds the MLB teams bring in after the All Star Game. But travel would be a nightmare if you want to give fans across the country the chance to see these games, and I don’t think there’s a potential host city with enough baseball venues of sufficient size to play all the games in one metropolitan area. I suppose it’s possible if the All-Star break was something like two full weeks, but I prefer to stretch this on occasional Mondays from spring to fall. And broadcasters would be happy to bid on a full line of elimination games all year round.
Some might argue that an American Baseball Cup would not be necessary. One of the reasons why these domestic cups are so attractive in European football is because those competitions don’t have play-offs at the end of the season; whoever wins the de facto regular season will be crowned champions. The single elimination tournaments provide some competitive variety and give teams other leagues to succeed in, even if they haven’t played in the league for a long time.
But can’t we say the same about baseball? Wouldn’t it be nice for red fans dreaming of a cup game this year to distract them from the team’s historically awful start to the season? Ultimately, a new league with the potential to create fascinating underdog storylines and act as a showcase for the game’s future stars feels like something to be explored.
To encourage MLB players and teams to give the ABC the time of day it so clearly deserves, dangle a cash prize of [insert obscenely large amount of money here] to be distributed among the winning players and a reward for the victorious team in the form of a competitive advantage. A first-round compensatory draft pick, perhaps?
MLB teams, players and fans just got through the most controversial labor negotiations in decades. With tensions still high between owners and the union, figuring out the finer details of this operation probably wouldn’t be a breeze. But the end result would be sweet enough to seriously explore the possibility.
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