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SportsMonday: MLB Asleep At The Switch

Allow me to be one of the many pointing out to baseball that it probably shouldn't look back at this point because soccer is gaining.

I'm not sure I know anyone who would rather watch a mediocre, routine-yet-endless regular-season major league baseball game instead of a routine, coming-in-comfortably-under-two-hours World Cup soccer game.

Now sure, you can try to argue that the World Cup happens only once every four years, and that if this was baseball's World Series going up against it in the ratings, it would be different . . . except you would stop arguing that pretty quickly, wouldn't you? Because what ails major league baseball ails major league post-season baseball even more, i.e., the inability of players and teams to play anything close to crisp, pleasingly paced contests even when they aren't a slugfest.

You have to wonder if Commissioner Bud Selig actually watches games anymore. Because if he did, surely he would have come up with a plan to speed things up by now. Come on, Bud! Either get on it or get out (resign). Average games are too damn long and playoff and World Series games are even worse.

It seems ridiculously obvious: to start, limit the number of times hitters can step out of the batter's box during an at-bat (one is plenty) and enforce a rule allowing pitchers to take more than 10 seconds to deliver a pitch only once during that same window (an individual at-bat). Set up a shot clock/pitch clock if you have to.

This should have been tried five years ago.

I have another question for good old Bud. Does he ever watch NBA basketball games? The NBA Finals that just concluded were spectacularly entertaining and the ratings were good. That was the case despite the fact that the overall competition was a blowout.

Part of it was that so many sports fans thoroughly enjoyed watching LeBron and his minions get crushed. But part of it was also that the NBA has fiddled and fiddled with some of the basic rules governing play, and it has seemingly settled on a winner with the current format, i.e., allowing some zone defensive play but enforcing an illegal defense rule that forces players to not linger in the paint for too long.

A half-dozen years ago, the NBA found itself with a problem: its rules against zones had resulted in way too much one-on-one play. Isolation plays were killing the game. So the league did something about it. Will MLB?

Any true fan of basketball will tell you that the brand of basketball the Spurs played in the finals was not just spectacularly successful, it was also wonderfully aesthetically pleasing.

So baseball, start fiddling already, would you? What is the problem other than a geezer of a commissioner who seems paralyzed by the fact that revenues keep growing? More and more money is still pouring in, he must be saying to himself; I better not screw it up. This is the way the game has been for more than a century, how dare I change it.

Except of course big changes have been made through the decades. You may recall they decided on using a different basic set of rules in the American League back in the '60s and that has worked out OK (although at some point the MLB should probably decide if it is going to play with a DH or not).

The money is pouring in primarily because sponsors are struggling to figure out what to do with the resources they've set aside to try to woo twentysomething males other than what they've always done, i.e., spend it on advertising on the longtime big three sports in the US (football then basketball then baseball).

If baseball isn't careful, during the next decade it will find itself outside that Big 3 looking in. Major League Soccer is such a fundamental joke because, of course, it couldn't be more of a minor league (the world's major leagues funnel their best teams into the Champions Cup competition in Europe every year). The MLS's Chicago situation is particularly telling; partly because of political incompetence and partly because of simple expedience, the team built its soccer-centric stadium in suburban Bridgeview a decade or so ago.

The problem, of course, is that in Chicago, the major league teams (Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs, Sox) play in the city and the minor league teams (the Wolves, the Sky - sorry WNBA) play in the suburbs.

Anyway, the World Cup business bounce for the MLS probably won't have tremendous impact in Chicago because of local factors. But it will have impact nationwide. And if baseball doesn't get its act together, who knows how long it might be before soccer is seen as the third biggest sport in the country (hockey is Canadian, OK? I will always separate it from the Big 3 in the U.S.).

Hey baseball, wake up!

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Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.

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