The Longest Season. The long and winding road, through the dog days of summer, into October. The grind, plain and simple. And, of course, the proverbial "marathon." Baseball's schedule has been called a lot of allegorical things, but never a piece of cake. Neither to play it, nor to create it. Fitting 30 teams and 2,430 games into a 181-day window on a 3,133-mile landscape -- and making it unique year after year -- is an undertaking of ridiculous proportions. A Rubik's Cube with six panels on each side.
That it all ultimately makes sense is a testament to foresight -- or just blind luck. Regard Philadelphia's current slate. The Phillies' April 18-27 homestand is scheduled to be games 13 through 22 of a season their Jimmy Rollins began 20 games shy of Joe DiMaggio's fabled 56-game hitting streak. Or last season, when the New York Yankees wrapped up with three games in Boston -- a series that ended with on-field celebrations of playoff berths on consecutive days by each team. Brilliant planning by prescient people? "If I could do that, I wouldn't be here working," says Katy Feeney, the senior vice president in the Commissioner's Office in charge of scheduling, implying she instead would be someplace where correct predictions pay off in hard cash. "If you try to make certain assumptions, they can turn out to be wrong. You can't plan too far ahead, because you'll end up ripping it all apart." In the fantasy world of gaming, it's a quick one-button process. You place the cursor over "Make schedule," click the mouse and, presto, play ball! But in the three-dimensional real world, you've got reams of team special requests, travel logistics, Collective Bargaining Agreement regulations and vats of Wite-Out. You've got a nightmare. "It's an ever-changing process, with a myriad of issues complicating the process," says Feeney. "At its very basic, the baseball side is always conflicting with the business side. "Everyone submits their requests, and we proceed mindful of special circumstances. We keep making revisions -- thousands if you count every little thing." And at the end of the day?
"Nobody is ever completely happy," sighs Feeney.MLB scheduling has always been a stealth process. Teams are forwarded tentative schedules in December, tweaks are implemented, the schedules become official in February -- and soon those handy little foldable slates go into wallets and on refrigerator doors. Scheduling has become a more topical issue recently only because different outfits have landed the contract to do it. While the job has long been up for annual bids, for more than two decades it had been a mom-and-pop operation. Literally. Henry and Holly Stephenson of Massachusetts got the job in 1980 and kept pushing their pencils for 24 years. Then a small Pittsburgh firm, Sports Scheduling Group, was chosen to compile the 2005 schedule. Yet another outfit landed the job for the current 2006 schedule. The reason for the latest switch is not known, but if name-propriety had anything to do with it, SSG certainly would've kept the job: one of its co-founders is Michael Trick, which is what the assignment turned out to be. As Trick noted after finally turning in the 2005 schedule, "I thought, 'How hard could this be?' It turned out to be very hard." Feeney chooses not to reveal the newcomer's identity, for no reason other than the fact innovations in technology have made the pursuit of the MLB scheduling gig more competitive. "The last several years," Feeney says, "we've asked a limited number of firms to provide us with something that indicates their capability. It's a luxury to have a choice. We give to all of the candidates the format, the Interleague rotation, special requests, some broad issues and they submit a sample schedule before we award the actual contract." When is all this groundwork laid? Work on the 2007 schedule began months before the first games of 2006 were played. Teams submitted their requests for the 2007 schedule in November 2005. In January, Feeney's people began the nuts-and-bolts aspect of assembling next season's schedule. The tentative schedule must be presented to the players' union by July 1, and the deadline for its response is Oct. 15. There are strict, negotiated guidelines to observe. The schedule must be between 178 and 183 days, can include no more than two day-night doubleheaders for any team, teams traveling from Pacific to Eastern time zones must have a day off in between, etc. And there are year-to-year conditions to accomodate. Who can forget, for example, the Astros' month-long, 26-game road trip in 1992 to permit the Republican National Convention to be held in the Astrodome? Or both the Dodgers and the Angels having to vacate southern California during the 1984 Olympics? And the Braves' 19-game trip made necessary by the 1996 Olympics? Those may be extreme examples, but similar circumstances always arise. For instance, when construction of their new ballpark begins, New York City must have the Mets on the road during the next few installments of tennis' U.S. Open, which is played across the street from Shea Stadium and will need use stadium parking lot. Requirements such as these need to be juggled with Feeney's regular wish list: No four-series homestands or road trips; a minimum of "semi-repeaters," those home-and-home series between teams interrupted by only one other series; fair distribution of the 13 in-season weekends among each team's 81-game home schedule. At least she is spared one headache of her predecessors: Deciding which teams get those valuable home dates on high-traffic holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day. Those used to be golden dates on any team's schedule. But times, like the technology churning out schedules, have changed. "A lot of teams don't want to be home on holidays. Their thinking is that now people leave town," says Feeney, grateful for that little break. "For the most part, teams still want to be home on July 4, so we simply have to rotate that."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.