Image credit: Cleveland Stadium in 1993. Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Thirty years ago, Baseball America offered “20 ideas to save baseball” in its 1993 Major League Preview issue. The ideas were pitched as BA’s “20 prescriptions to restore baseball’s greatness.”
As MLB headed into the 1993 season, storm clouds were gathering ahead of a labor war that would manifest in the 1994 players’ strike and cancellation of the World Series.
Several of the hot-button issues from three decades ago will sound familiar today.
• Revenue disparity threatened to create a league of haves and have-nots.
This is now framed more as payroll disparity, with tax penalties levied against teams that spend past a certain threshold.
• A pervading distrust between players and owners created uneasy labor peace.
Baseball lost hundreds of games in 1994 and ’95 to the strike but had avoided a work stoppage for more than 25 years until the owners locked out the players following the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in December 2021. When a new agreement was reached the following March, commissioner Rob Manfred acknowledged that it was “important to have a better relationship between the players and our office.”
• Baseball is a traditional game that must sometimes eschew tradition to grow.
Thirty years ago, traditionalists looked skeptically at likely changes to MLB that included the adoption of a three-division format in each league, expanding the playoff field from four teams to eight and interleague play.
“Tradition? Twenty-five years ago there was no divisional play, DH or artificial surfaces,” BA columnist Tracy Ringolsby wrote in 1993. “Now they are accepted parts of the game.”
While it has been a long time coming, MLB has grown much less resistant to change in recent years. The universal DH and a 12-team playoff field arrived in 2022, and a series of rules changes aimed at speeding up the game plus a new schedule format debuted in 2023.
• The average time of game crept inexorably toward three hours.
The average time of a nine-inning game climbed straight uphill over the past 50 years, and it wasn’t all the result of longer television commercial breaks.
The slower pace was noticeable on the field. Pirates manager Jim Leyland was quoted in 1993 as saying, “We need to do something to get the game moving.”
• Declining attendance trends raised questions about the game’s vitality.
MLB per-game attendance in 1992 diminished after eight straight years of growth. This occurred simultaneously with lower TV ratings, spurring the owners to adopt many of the “non-traditional” changes that came to baseball in the 1990s.
The pandemic obscured the fact a bit, but MLB attendance began to trend down in the mid 2010s, dipping below 30,000 fans per game in 2017 after 13 straight years exceeding that mark.
Founding editor Allan Simpson proved prescient with many of the predictions he made 30 years ago.
Baseball today has its share of problems—payroll disparity and labor relations being the most prominent—but is in a much better place in 2023 than it was in 1993.
Let’s assess the accuracy of Simpson’s “20 ideas to save baseball” from 30 years ago on a scale ranging from home run to strikeout. Original 1993 text is presented in italics.
1993 Idea #1: Revenue Sharing
The chasm between large- and small-market teams threatens competitive balance, the game’s lifeblood. Entitle teams to keep half the revenues they generate, thus rewarding those franchises with quality operations and/or higher operating costs. The other half would be put in a central fund shared equally by the 28 clubs.
2023 Reality: Stymied in their attempt to implement a salary cap, MLB owners made revenue sharing central to the 1996 labor agreement. The system has evolved over time to the point where today 48% of teams’ local revenues are subject to revenue sharing and then distributed equally among all 30 teams. Teams receive more than $100 million annually from this system, in addition to millions of dollars in shared national revenues.
On top of a revenue-sharing system, the highest spending teams pay a competitive balance tax for surpassing payroll thresholds. The Mets are projected to be taxed at the top tier this year, while the Yankees, Padres, Phillies, Braves and Blue Jays are also in line for CBT payments.
1993 Idea #2: Faster Games
Baseball has long been accused of being slow, but lately it’s gotten ridiculous. Whatever happened to those snappy 2:15 contests? Today’s games routinely drag beyond the dreaded three-hour mark.
Our solutions range from strictly enforcing the time limit between pitches (20 seconds) and innings (90 seconds), to limiting the number of visits anyone (manager, catchers, chatty infielders) can make to the mound, to strictly enforcing the official, larger strike zone.
How about a 20-90 second clock, if only as a spring training experiment? That would get players conditioned to the tempo of a faster-paced game, the idea being that it would carry over to the regular season.
2023 Reality: MLB finally curbed time of game creep by instituting a pitch clock of 15 seconds with the bases empty, which in the early stages of this season had reduced average game times by nearly 30 minutes compared with 2022. Teams are also limited to five mound visits per game.
1993 Idea #3: Interleague Play
You live in Atlanta and never have had a chance to see George Brett play? That’s a shame.
With (a proposed) 32 teams in four eight-team divisions and two leagues, interleague play easily could work. Each team would play half the teams in the other league three games a year, retaining novel interleague matchups while allowing fans in each city to see teams from the other league at home every fourth year.
2023 Reality: MLB introduced interleague play in 1997, and while it created marquee rivalries in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York and other interesting geographical pairings such as Oakland-San Francisco, Baltimore-Washington, Kansas City-St. Louis and Cincinnati-Cleveland, it largely felt like a novelty.
That changed in 2023 when MLB adopted a more balanced schedule. Each team now plays at least one series versus the other 29 teams each season, meaning that every team will play in every park at least once every two years.
1993 Idea #4: Realignment
While we’re at it, it’s time baseball lumped its teams geographically, thereby greatly enhancing natural regional rivalries and reducing travel. The Cubs’ legal battle to stay in the National League East for the sake of cable dollars not only ruined a good idea, but also was selfish and sent a bad message to the public.
2023 Reality: Baseball repaired its impaired divisional alignment—Atlanta and Cincinnati in the National League West? Chicago and St. Louis in the NL East?—when it split the leagues into three divisions each in 1994. Further adjustments were made when expansion teams were added in 1998, and in 2013 the Astros switched leagues to create uniform five-team divisions. Divisional realignment had the effect of saving time and money on travel, especially with the old unbalanced schedule, while keeping teams within their own time zone much more frequently.
1993 Idea #5: Pros In The Olympics
The International Olympic Committee has hinted it might withdraw baseball’s status as a medal sport if the best players don’t compete in the Olympics.
Let’s open the competition to everyone, as most other Olympic sports have done. And while it may not be practical for the United States to send its version of a Dream Team because the Olympics and MLB season overlap, why not use a team of Triple-A stars? It would be a more representative U.S. team than a group of college stars overmatched against older competition.
2023 Reality: Professional baseball players—in this case minor leaguers—were first allowed to participate in the Olympics in 2000 at the Sydney summer games. Team USA won gold that year with a team featuring future major leaguers Roy Oswalt, Ben Sheets and Brad Wilkerson.
Twenty years later, Team USA won silver at the 2020 Tokyo games with a roster that included hopefuls such as Triston Casas, Shane Baz and Joe Ryan.
The 2008 team took bronze at the Beijing Olympics.
The future of baseball as an Olympic sport is in question. It will not be part of the 2024 Paris games but is expected to return for the 2028 Los Angeles games.
1993 Idea #6: International Flavor
Slowly but surely, baseball is becoming an international game. It’s high time that MLB realized the unlimited marketing possibilities.
We propose two major international competitions, to be played in alternating years: a true World Series and a Canada Cup-style international tournament.
A true World Series would immediately follow our World Series, and would match our champion in a seven-game series against a representative from the rest of the world, probably Cuba’s national team or the Japan Series champion. The opposition would be determined by a qualifying tournament.
As for an international tournament styled after hockey’s Canada Cup, we’re suggesting an event played in March to coincide with spring training. It would feature the world’s best baseball-playing nations, and include major leaguers playing for their native countries. Suggested teams: Australia, Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Taiwan, United States and Venezuela.
2023 Reality: While a showdown between MLB and NPB champions never came to pass, Simpson completely nailed the World Baseball Classic, down to the time to stage the event and the most likely participants.
1993 Idea #7: Aggressive Marketing
Of the major teams sports, baseball does the poorest job of marketing itself and its players. It’s paramount that baseball launches an aggressive, creative marketing campaign.
- Institute The Baseball Channel, a 24-hour, all-baseball cable network that would air news, features, highlights, replays of classic games, a college and minor league game of the week, early-round coverage of the amateur draft, C-SPANesque coverage of the Winter Meetings, Bill James’ Talking Baseball and any number of other ideas.
- A gala, black-tie, made-for-TV offseason awards banquet at which the league MVPs, Cy Young Award winners, rookies of the year, Minor League Player of the Year and Hall of Fame nominees are announced.
- An All-Star Game individual skills competitions in which baseball’s best players showcase their tools: a home run hitting contest, outfielders throwing for distance and accuracy, the game’s best baserunners dashing around the bases, pitchers lighting up radar guns with their best fastballs and baseball’s best batsmiths skillfully placing bunts.
2023 Reality: A lot has changed since this marketing idea was pitched 30 years ago. Transcendent stars such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Derek Jeter have pitched products, and the charismatic Julio Rodriguez appears to be next in line.
MLB Network launched in 2009 and follows Simpson’s prescription nearly to the letter. MLBN has even attempted to bring additional gravitas and suspense to postseason awards voting via special programming, but it has not yet tried a black-tie awards show format.
The All-Star Game has lost prestige over the years, but for hardcore fans that is more than compensated for by other all-star weekend events such as the Futures Game and Home Run Derby, which have both surpassed the ASG in terms of must-see worthiness.
1993 Idea #8: Larger Playoffs
There are few things in sports quite as captivating as a day-to-day, down-to-the-wire pennant race. On the flip side, baseball plays far too many meaningless games in September.
We don’t favor the three division winners/one wild card format that ownership is promoting to add interest and TV ratings in the final month. If the playoffs are going to be expanded to eight teams anyway, let’s retain the current, identifiable four-division structure and simply take the two division winners plus two wild cards with the next-best records.
2023 Reality: The MLB postseason expanded from four teams to eight in 1995, then to 10 in 2012 and finally to 12 in 2022. The last expansion even added a new round, the Wild Card Series, and first-round byes for the top teams. I tend to agree that fewer divisions containing more teams would be preferable.
1993 Idea #9: Better Television
Baseball’s existing television contacts with CBS and ESPN have been a disaster, particularly for the networks. No matter how painful the cuts in baseball’s next TV contract, a couple of ground rules must be established.
- Restore World Series and playoff games to afternoon/early evening times so children, the next generation of fans, can watch them.
- Restore the network Game of the Week to a regularly scheduled time slot, every week, no exceptions. From there, leave regular season telecasts to ESPN, one of the few bright spots in the current TV deal.
Major League Baseball also should explore ways to complement conventional coverage. The Baseball Channel is one option. Pay-per-view that would enable a Cardinals fan living in Idaho to see all St. Louis games—a TV season ticket—is another.
2023 Reality: MLB.TV launched in 2002 and allowed consumers with high-speed internet to watch all out-of-market games. The service is a baseball fanatic’s dream, even though it is still marred by blackouts of local broadcasts after 20 years.
These days, the Game of the Week is ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, a staple since 1990 and almost always must-watch. No other national broadcast has an exclusive telecast window like SNB, and no other so consistently delivers marquee matchups.
1993 Idea #10: Expansion To 32 Teams
It’s inevitable baseball will expand to 32 teams, so why wait? The result would be four eight-team divisions, fixing the current unwieldy seven-team alignments. Let’s put emphasis on finding four untapped markets whose locations would put the game within a four- to five-hour drive of almost every baseball fan in the country. Tampa-St. Petersburg, Phoenix, New Orleans and Charlotte come to mind.
2023 Reality: While it’s not clear what makes a seven-team division “unwieldy” but an eight-teamer ideal, we will give Simpson credit for correctly identifying the next two expansion markets of St. Petersburg and Phoenix. The Rays and D-backs began play in 1998, bringing the total number of teams to 30, where it has remained for the past 26 seasons.
Expansion to 32 teams will most likely occur after ballpark issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay are resolved—or the teams relocated.
1993 Idea #11: Streamlined Minors
With proposals outlined here, major league teams no longer would field from six to eight farm clubs. Three might be more realistic, one each at Triple-A, Double-A and Class A.
Each classification would have four eight-teams leagues. Leagues and cities not making the cut would form the summer leagues for college players, where the caliber of play should be as good as in current short-season leagues.
2023 Reality: It’s uncanny how accurate this prediction was. When MLB assumed control of the minor leagues in 2021 following the expiration of the Professional Baseball Agreement, it pared the number of domestic minor league classifications to five by eliminating the short-season and Rookie-advanced levels. And as Simpson outlined, many of the teams that lost affiliations became summer college or partner leagues.
1993 Idea #12: Shortened Season
When the extra tier of playoffs is added, the regular season should end one week earlier, on the last Sunday in September. Because both the owners and players will be sharing revenues and won’t want to cut the number of games, they can both sacrifice a little. The owners can schedule a couple of doubleheaders. The players can give up a couple of off days.
2023 Reality: The MLB postseason is bigger than ever, and that has necessitated schedule changes. Those changes have not taken the form of doubleheaders or lost off days so much as an earlier Opening Day, which now occurs in late March as often as early April.
1993 Idea #13: High School Championship
High school and youth baseball need to gain a much higher profile, if only to be a more attractive alternative for athletes competing in football and basketball. A national high school baseball championship of some sort would give much-needed visibility to the sport. High school baseball is extremely popular in Japan, largely because of a national tournament.
2023 Reality: The National High School Invitational launched in 2012 and gathers 16 top high school teams from around the country at the USA Baseball complex in Cary, N.C. The event has not captured national cachet but has played host to future MLB stars including the current Braves trio of Max Fried, Matt Olson and Austin Riley.
1993 Idea #14: More RBI Programs
Baseball needs to adopt a plan to reinvest in the nation’s inner cities. Specifically, take a page from Marlins scout John Young’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program and apply it to all major league cities, not just Los Angeles and St. Louis. Each major league team would be responsible for helping disadvantaged youth and promoting the game to a new generation of fans.
2023 Reality: Today, the RBI program operates in more than 200 cities after beginning with its Los Angeles flagship in 1989. Despite this, representation by Black Americans in MLB continues to dwindle, with a 2023 tally at 4%.
1993 Idea #15: Visionary Commissioner
The players have Don Fehr; the owners need their own CEO to take care of their unique interests. Both parties would appoint and work hand-in-hand with the commissioner, whose primary responsibility would be to serve as caretaker of the game. He would have no involvement in collective bargaining.
Ideally, the role would be filled by someone young and dynamic. The commissioner should have both a feel for the game and its tradition, and the foresight to bring the game into the ’90s—the 1990s, not 1890s—and ultimately into a new century. Someone already in the game, like Minnesota general manager Andy MacPhail or Oakland GM Sandy Alderson would fit our description.
2023 Reality: The commissioner is elected by the owners and serves the interests of the owners, particularly the minority faction that can veto any agreement. This has been the case since Bud Selig was installed as acting commissioner in 1992 following the ouster of Fay Vincent.
1993 Idea #16: True Partnership
For the game to flourish, 20 years of player-management contentiousness must be forgotten and a partnership based on trust and honesty formed between the players and owners. The logical byproduct would be a sharing of all the game’s revenues. While the NBA’s 53-47 split in favor of the players might be too generous for baseball, we suggest a 50-48 split in favor of ownership, with the remaining 2% reinvested in the game’s grassroots levels—colleges, youth leagues, inner-city programs.
2023 Reality: Baseball lacks the owners-players revenue split and salary cap plus floor systems in place in the NFL, NBA and NHL. The MLB Players Association prefers not to set constraints on players’ earning potential, preferring to let the rising tide lift all boats, even if some midrange free agents are left behind.
It’s difficult to see the players agreeing to a system containing a salary cap and revenue split that the other major sports leagues use. The players’ mistrust runs deep after the owners clung for nearly a century to the reserve clause linking player to club in perpetuity. That wasn’t abolished until an arbiter ruled against the owners, triggering the dawn of free agency in the late 1970s. But shortly after players earned the right to free agency, owners colluded against them to suppress salaires for three offseasons in the mid 1980s.
Even in the present day, players have voiced displeasure about how MLB handled negotiations for the pandemic-shortened schedule in 2020 and against the practice of service time manipulation. Out of concern for the latter, the Prospect Promotion Incentive was negotiated into the 2022 CBA and has already resulted in more prospects making Opening Day rosters.
1993 Idea #17: Salary Cap
Players would get a maximum of 48% of all revenues the game generates. The lawyers can figure it out, but salaries would be distributed somewhat along the lines of the NBA’s successful salary-cap structure.
2023 Reality: This is a swing and a miss. See the above for more.
1993 Idea #18: New Draft Rule
Baseball has used virtually the same player-development system for decades, while the world around it has changed significantly. Baseball continues to endorse a system from the 1950s that encourages high school students to forego college.
Nine of 10 players who sign professional contracts never reach the majors, and many have nothing to fall back on. Baseball should change its rules to draft only college seniors and players who declare early.
2023 Reality: It’s difficult to see MLB adopting any draft rule of this nature. It’s all about the money. The players support high school draft eligibility because preps have more negotiating leverage via college commitments, while MLB teams support continued access to high-ceiling teenagers at a fraction of their market value.
What’s more, since the 1960s, MLB teams have written Professional Baseball Scholarship Plan provisions into Uniform Player Contracts for select players. The Plan covers college tuition and living expenses within a specified time of a player’s retirement or release from his contract.
1993 Idea #19: Professional College Players
Getting the staid NCAA to adhere to change is an unlikely proposition, particularly where low-profile college baseball is concerned. Nonetheless, the commissioner’s office should renew negotiations begun in Fay Vincent’s regime to allow the best college players to play in pro leagues during the summer.
Players who play in NCAA-sanctioned summer leagues are compensated financially anyway. By playing in pro leagues, they would gain the obvious advantage of playing in a pro environment with wood bats, and would be that much better prepared when the time came for them to pursue baseball as a job.
Scouts could better determine a prospect’s worth, making bonus money well spent.
2023 Reality: The summer baseball season has exploded in popularity and relevance in the last three decades. Wood bat leagues for college underclassmen exist all over the country, with the Cape Cod League being the premiere destination for players not selected for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. For rising high school seniors, what they show with wood bats—and against premium competition—on the summer showcase circuit goes a long way toward determining their value for the draft.
But there is no professional circuit for active college players. But what has changed is that NCAA athletes may be compensated for their Name, Image, Likeness as of a 2021 ruling.
1993 Idea #20: College Baseball Lobbyist
College baseball needs a heavyweight to lobby on its behalf. Not only to restore recent cutbacks in coaches, schedules and scholarships, but to gain additional benefits if colleges are to become an integral part of player development. Who else to go to bat but the commissioner’s office?
2023 Reality: By shortening the draft to 20 rounds and eliminating two short-season levels of the minor leagues, MLB has effectively pushed a larger share of player development to four-year colleges and partner leagues. But MLB reaching a true accord with the NCAA seems highly unlikely if only because of bureaucracy.