Sunday, June 07, 2009

Not the Giants, Really

I am not a soccer fan. It wasn’t part of my home life growing up. When they had us playing it in school, I wasn’t good at it. It’s not the Giants. I only ever saw it on TV when KTEH in San Jose would show prerecorded matches from England, featuring Mario Machado at the mike. When I watched this, it was because Monty Python or something was going to be on next. I remember no teams or players, except for Cunningham—whatever his first name might be—who was noteworthy by being the only black player in these broadcasts. Ever.

And yet I’ve been reading Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, on the recommendation of a Paris-based friend, a Giants fan and soccer enthusiast. He knows soccer ain’t my bag, but that’s not what the book is about. It’s merely the medium in which the author lays bare his soul, at least in terms of his obsession with the Arsenal football club. Recently I saw the movie based on the book—the English one with Colin Firth, not the American one with Jimmy Fallon, because… well, Jimmy Fallon—and, confident that I could wade through the stuff about soccer itself, I decided to read the book.

Good film; good book. In the latter, Hornby freely admits that more or less stopped maturing at about age 14, and that Arsenal is way more important than career or relationships. He’s not happy about it, but he can’t help it. It has a certain ring of familiarity about it: I’ve managed—I think—to place the Giants at a reasonable place in my hierarchy of important things, but it sure hasn’t been easy. But Fever Pitch makes it clear that if you’re not in the mindset Hornby was, and many of us have been, you simply cannot understand it. You can sympathize when we’re sad or something, but you’ll just never get it, probably because you’re sane.

I mention this because I recommend both the book and the Colin Firth movie, but also because the book led me to some odd, not-at-all-heavy thoughts about baseball. First, my apologies for my soccer ignorance to anybody who knows more about English football than I do (in other words, almost everybody), or soccer in general, but in Hornby’s book it sounds as though Arsenal was playing for more than one championship or something, and I found this hard to follow so I looked up English football on WikiPedia just to get an idea of how it works. I guess the upshot is that there are dozens and dozens of teams, and even the lowliest, crappiest, most poverty-stricken, even the most Giantslike team in the Football Association could be the champion of the whole damn thing. And this lowly, crappy, poor team might even be semi-pro. As with college sports, teams play games against league and non-league opponents—something I’ve never understood, which could easily explain my lack of enthusiasm for college sports (and, sadly, for college, but that’s another story).

So I thought, “What if there were baseball leagues like this?” I wasn’t thinking in terms of Out Of The Park or tabletop baseball games—just a “what if?” Now, the Football Association setup is far more complicated than the hypothetical I came up with: the FA has a great many levels, each with about 20 to 24 clubs, and I decided that the “Baseball Association”—or whatever—would be a lot more manageable, at least by someone looking at it hypothetically.

Let’s just assume it’s all top-level professional, but there are multiple levels—let’s say six, though there could be several more, depending on how many teams there are in the BA. The lowest levels have major-league-level teams, not minors types; the higher levels simply have much, much better teams. Granted, since there are only 30 major league teams, you’d have to stretch your imagination to believe that—in this case—this Baseball Association could somehow field 136 major-league-caliber teams.

In this thoroughly imaginary, not-about-to-actually-be-realized BA, Level 1 would be the way the major leagues were when I started following them (blindly and enthusiastically): four divisions, six teams each. Perhaps the teams would be divided into two “leagues,” and they’d never mix in the regular season. (Does it matter?) Levels 2 through 5 would each consist of a single league of two divisions, with eight teams each, and Level 6 would consist of four leagues, each with two divisions, six teams per.

Playoffs and championship series would be pretty much as we’ve come to expect. The “twist,” though, is that between seasons, though, the two worst teams at each level (1 through 5) move to the next lower level (or are “relegated,” as FA people say); the two best teams in each level (2 through 6) move up to the next level.

This means that the leagues change virtually every year. Let’s forget about things like travel logistics: The U.K. covers about 94,000 square miles, home to roughly 60 million people. It doesn’t even take all that long to drive from tip to tail—if you had the time, it would be pretty easy to follow your team throughout the length and breadth of the land. North America, meanwhile, has an area about 10 times that of the U.K., and a population about seven and a half times the U.K.’s. (And I didn’t even have to look this stuff up on the Web! Oh, no! Came right off the top of my head, that did! Right off!) So heck, maybe North America could house more than six levels of Baseball Association teams. It’s probably pretty horrifying to contemplate.

Is this a stupid idea? Well, probably, but I’m just spitballing here. I ran it by David Beck, who thinks it looks intriguing, but that various market disparity factors would pretty much murder it. “If teams in leagues could just be there just to be there and ‘have a chance,’” he says, “what’s to [prevent] a top tier of 57 New York teams and 32 Los Angeles teams, and a whole bunch of other teams in the lower divisions with insane people jumping up and down like the guy in the ‘Tonight’s the night!’ joke, thinking they even have a rat’s nard of a chance to compete?”

This hadn’t remotely occurred to me, which probably indicates something unpleasant, but he’s right. We San Francisco fans—however many San Francisco teams their may be—would be out here freaking out, aching for our team(s) to somehow do well enough just to win the Level 4 championship and then be promoted to Level 3, at which time we’d have to go crazy hoping like hell they don’t tank the following season against better teams overall in Level 3 and then get demoted. We’d have decades involving absolutely no danger of our teams moving up or seeing any postseason action whatsoever. Then some day our desperate owners would somehow raise the money to add a few outstanding players, and the team would win championships three years in a row—thus moving from Level 4 to Level 1—at which time their great players would be old and become expensive millstones, preventing them from hiring more great players, and their not-quite-superstar players would start following money elsewhere. So we’d be lucky to see our San Francisco teams in the top tier for more than one season at a time, which means we’d be lucky to be able to agonize about somehow winning it all—and, of course, we wouldn’t, which makes this hypothetical organization exactly like real baseball in San Francisco.

But to keep you from being too depressed—there’s nothing I can do about the boredom you’re suffering: that’s your problem; write your own blog—I set up an Excel spreadsheet in exactly the configuration detailed above. I included cities that have housed top-level sports franchises, and several of these cities had two, three, or even four teams. (The stadium construction industry would be the only currently profitable venture.) I scattered them randomly into their initial levels. I didn’t do any kind of baseball thingy or sports simulation: I just used random numbers to determine standings for 20 years.

To my surprise, none of the 136 teams stayed in the top division every year, and seven stayed in Level 7. Lots of the original top-tier teams fell to Level 2 for a year or two, then played their way back up. Even more teams moved up for a bit, then fell back down. Only one team won three consecutive championships, vaulting from Level 5 to Level 2, and only one team appeared in every level—and it wasn’t the happy kind of progression. Only one top-level team spent all 20 years in that level, but 25 teams stayed in Level 6 forever—imagine being fans of those teams.

This isn’t too far from what I expected, but it assumes equal footing for every team. For this kind of arrangement to happen, you’d probably need a hard salary cap and equal revenues for each team, which, as you can imagine, wouldn’t be popular among the successful teams. I mean, what’s the point of being smart and very good at your job—which, you’d think, is what this “equal footing” thing would make necessary for success—if the dingleberry teams make the same money? Knowing as little as I do about economics in general, you’ll excuse me if it’s ignorance that leads me to state that teams would tend to consist of one superstar and 24 tweaks (which is what I expected to happen to the majors, but it never really did, although sometimes the Giants had 25 tweaks).

One thing this exercise led me to think was, how can anybody be a fan of the bottom-level teams? How can people get excited about their teams winning a Level 3 or 4 championship? Level 2 I could understand: eventually your team would have a pretty good chance to win the overall championship—I mean, getting into Level 1 is the only way a team could accomplish this, so yeah, that Level 2 championship might be a big deal.

And what about baseball cards? There’d be 3,400 players on active rosters at any given time, all theoretically “big leaguers,” so how fair would it be for players in just, say, Levels 1 through 3 to sign baseball card contracts? Pricing probably would depend largely on level also—and perhaps availability, too. What a mess.

And through it all: No Baseball Association Cups in San Francisco.


  1. To this day, no baseball book has captured the way I feel about the Giants more than Fever Pitch, which is pretty remarkable considering it has nothing to do with baseball or even America. For years, two quotes in particular have popped into my head

    Hornby's first childhood reactions to a soccer crowd: "What impressed me most was just how much most of the men around me hated, really hated being there... As far as I could tell, nobody seemed to enjoy, in the way that I understood the word, anything that happened during the entire afternoon... Entertainment as pain was an idea entirely new to me."

    And, on the other end of the spectrum: "So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller and contains less potential for unexpected delirium."

  2. Oh, and about your "Association" idea, I don't know if relegation would be feasible in American sports, but the concept certainly would keep a lot more teams playing meaningful games through the dog days. American sports compound the problem by rewarding the worst teams with the highest draft picks. Malcolm Gladwell recently made a solid case for flipping draft orders 180 degrees; that may be a bit much, but having the best non-playoff team pick first makes a lot of sense to me.

  3. It’s starting to look like I’d better be the one to write the baseball equivalent of Fever Pitch....

  4. Well, I really have no problem with the “worst-picks-first” approach. At least it’s lip service in favor of parity. Not that parity itself is really all that important to me, except that in a league of true parity, the Giants woulda won at least one championship by now....