Game Changers: Regular season schedule

Game Changers: Regular season schedule

Major League Baseball's regular season, more than any other in professional sports, truly epitomizes a marathon, a grueling test of team and individual endurance. The season for all seasons that on a daily basis marches its way through three of them on the calendar, it's a 162-game gauntlet for teams and players that dwarfs other sports' schedules.

In a word, it's a grind. There's nothing like it.

Miracle Whip

"Even when I was a younger player, I always thought the baseball season was a grind," says Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, as he approached the midway point of his 12th full tour of the marathon. "If you play every day and you're playing hard, if you're playing center field, running into fences, diving on the ground, day after day, it's a grind. Catchers who play every day, I can't even imagine that."

Yet baseball does it, year after year, for 162 games. That marathon is part of what makes baseball the game it is today. It's the gold standard for team sports schedules.

But could there be some change in the wind for the venerable baseball regular-season schedule? It's possible.

As some consider expanding the Division Series to a best-of-seven or even adding another play-in round to the postseason, the regular season very much figures into the discussion. With the current playoff format already pushing into November, it could be difficult to make additions to the postseason schedule without making changes to the regular season, or at least when it ends and gives way to the playoffs.

As the subject of expanding the postseason was broached, among many other subjects, at the initial meeting of the Special Committee for On-Field Matters appointed by Commissioner Bud Selig in January, that inherent time crunch was at the crux of the matter.

"The problem is, nobody wants to go into November, yet they want to add onto the schedule," Selig said after that initial meeting.

So if going into November causes problems and there's a call for more games in October, the logical assumption is perhaps there is some wiggle room for the six (or seven, counting March) months that precede it -- the regular season.

Some would say the easiest way to gain a week out of the regular season to use for an expanded postseason might be to cut the 162-game season back to 154, which it was for the entire modern era until 1961.

Though he often has supported it, Selig has made it clear that's not likely to happen, because it would mean the loss of eight games of revenue.

"I've said for a long time that if the clubs want to go back to 154, we can reduce a lot of this," Selig said during the 2009 World Series. "But they unanimously don't want to do that."

Besides, 162 games -- as difficult as it is, it's what players know. It's what fans know. For five decades it has been the standard.

"I don't know that I'd be opposed to [154], but at the same time, 162 games is what we've all been geared to do our whole careers," Hunter said. "It's what everybody's used to. I can't really imagine just 154 -- I'd kind of feel like I was getting cheated."

For most of the 20th century, however, that was the number: 154, not 162.

The American League adopted the 162-game schedule in 1961, when it expanded by two teams with the advent of the Angels and the second rendition of the Senators, the latter created to replace the Washington franchise that moved to Minnesota. The National League played the last 154-game season that year and then expanded in 1962 with the Mets and Colt .45s, who would become the Astros.

Out of the gates, 162 became a bone of contention, and for that we can thank Roger Maris. It was in 1961 when Maris hit 61 homers, earning what turned out to be a temporary mythical asterisk for breaking Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60 -- set in 154 games, in 1927. Earlier in the season, Commissioner Ford C. Frick had said that any record would have to be broken in 154 games to be considered a record, and many in the baseball community agreed with him. Eventually, however, the 154-game and 162-game records were accepted as equal, as Commissioner Fay Vincent officially removed the record book's separate categories in 1991.

Through the beginning of divisional play in 1969 and more expansions, the 162-game concept has remained intact. But three changes in the past 15 years have had real impact on the season's schedule within those 162 games: the split to three divisions per league in 1994, the advent of Interleague Play in 1997 and the institution of an unbalanced schedule in 2001.

"When we went to divisional play, I thought it quite unfair that in my division, we are playing teams outside the division as much as teams in [the division]. Then why did you go to divisional play?" Selig, the former Brewers owner, said in his Town Hall Chat with fans at the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis.

Critics of the unbalanced schedule have said that it magnifies economic disparities (see: AL East) and can create inequities with teams vying for a Wild Card having varying degrees of strength of schedule. And that's just one area of baseball's schedule that gets fans talking, and baseball minds thinking about how to make the game better.

As the Special Committee for On-Field Matters examines the schedule, both of the postseason and the regular season, any significant changes to either one are subject to collective bargaining.

As for the root of the issue to re-examine the regular season -- seven-game Division Series -- union chief Michael Weiner has said the players are on board. "There is a lot of sentiment for that among players, as a fairer competitive issue," he said when he was approved as the new executive director in December. MLB did announce a change in the postseason schedule, raised by the Angels' Mike Scioscia during last year's ALCS, supported by the committee and approved by the union, removing one day off in the League Championship Series round.

Weiner is among those who believe playoff expansion can be done with tighter scheduling and therefore without intruding on the regular season -- though he acknowledged the difficulty. "We have to be respectful of our TV partners, but we also have to be concerned with competitive aspects," he said.

All that considered, if baseball in fact must find a way to push the end of the regular season back a week or more, how does that happen?

One idea that has been making its way around online forums and other groups discussing baseball: scheduled doubleheaders. Even one a month would go a long way toward cramming 162 games into less time. Once a staple of the season, particularly before air travel, scheduled doubleheaders have not been part of the slate for decades, with only two in the 1990s. That doesn't include the 25 or so that get scheduled as makeup games for rainouts, of course.

But, then, players might be about as much in favor of doubleheaders as the owners are in favor of cutting back to 154 games.

"Doubleheaders hurt," Hunter says succinctly. "It's just a long, 14-, 15-hour day that takes a lot out of you and can throw off your rhythm, that's the main thing. When it's raining outside, you know players are saying, 'Please don't give us a rainout,' because we know that means we're going to end up with a doubleheader."

As one National League manager put it earlier this season, it's a "double headache" -- throwing off the regular starting rotation and causing managers to juggle their lineups and hope their bullpens don't get a double whammy.

OK, so maybe the solution isn't more doubleheaders -- with apologies to the great Ernie Banks.

Maybe it's starting the season earlier and cutting out a week of Spring Training -- always a popular idea among players who believe six weeks of camp is too much.

Maybe it's something else, or none of the above. Maybe that venerable slate can live on in its current form.

Ultimately, it's about what makes the most sense for baseball's future, competitively and economically, and in Hunter's mind that means what's best for the people who come along for the ride on that 162-game marathon.

"As long as I've been around now, I know it's not about the players -- it's about the fans," Hunter said. "If they want to see something different with the schedule, they'll let MLB know, they'll be blogging about it and making it known.

"At the end of the day, it's up to the fans. If the fans want us to play more games or less games, or if they want us to play more doubleheaders, then that's probably what we'll do."

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.