Baseball should move its championship to a neutral city for better weather, better ratings, and better games.
Watching the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers slog it out in the rain Monday night was a blast. Heinz Field was a gloriously sloppy mud pit—resembling conditions for the Bears and Texans in Chicago on Sunday night—with temperatures in the low-30s and a driving rain that turned the turf to mush.
All the football in fabulously bad weather reminded me of what Patrick Hrubry wrote for The Atlantic a few weeks ago, when he warned that the World Series was going to Hell. Or, even worse, to Florida.
Railing against baseball's greed, Hruby claimed that MLB's ever-expanding postseason will inevitably push the World Series deep into November, even past Veteran's Day, meaning the games will likely have to be played under a dome or in a warm-weather city at predetermined neutral site, just like the Super Bowl and Final Four. Patrick sees this as a "cash grab": MLB's secret plot to fundamentally alter and so ruin their most sacred insinuation.
Baseball fans, reactionary by nature, will usually recoil in horror at the idea. But the neutral-site World Series would be a spectacular boost for the game, improving the quality of play between the lines at baseball's signature event. Better yet, a neutral site would MLB a chance to better showcase their season finale and maybe win back some of the attention the series has lost in the last decades to events it once dwarfed in the public mind. Like, say, the aforementioned Super Bowl and Final Four. Call it a mockery or cash grab—it sounds to me more like growing the sport.
The first and most glaring problem with the status quo is that baseball in cold weather is no fun. That goes for players and fans alike. People rhapsodize about the romance of the game on a crisp fall day, but the demands of TV wiped out the World Series day-game a long time ago. They all start at night when "crisp" turns to "frigid," and MLB's postseason already goes deep enough into the autumn for some bad weather to be almost guaranteed.
Witness the Game 5 of the ALCS postponed. Or the how the Giants' four-game sweep of the Tigers ended at Comerica Park on October 28, and the temperature at first pitch was 44 degrees with a bone-chilling wind—also known as perfectly normal weather for Detroit in late October. The conditions were completely miserable for any playing or watching of baseball, which is a game made to be elegant beneath the summer heat. Did you see those Tiger fans shivering under winter coats and knit caps in the bleachers? Tell me again ... where's the romance?
Football in bad weather is fantastic, of course. The NFL fans in Chicago and Pittsburgh rightly paid top dollar to stand in the cold rain and scream for their clubs. But the same doesn't hold true for all sports. No one pays to see basketball outside in mid-November, for instance, because wintry conditions crush the subtleties of a sport meant for the indoors on hardwood. Not even the prettiest jump shot will fly straight in a 20-mph crosswind.
The same goes for baseball. November doesn't enhance the game, but distort it. Pitchers get numb fingers. They can't feel the rawhide as well and lose their pinpoint control. The distance any given fly ball travels is often more a function of how hard the wind blows rather than how hard the ball was hit. Fielding gets sloppy too, as the trajectories of grounders take tiny, unpredictable shifts in midair.
It's dumb, if you think about it. The World Series is baseball's biggest event, MLB's showcase for their best of the best. Yet frequently, the games are held under conditions that make the highest level of play impossible.
Fans will flock to New Orleans in February because it'll be The Place to Be that weekend. When was the last time a World Series felt that essential?
That's just plain bad marketing. By removing the hindrance of bad weather, both teams will shine. That can only be good. For all of football's reveling in rain, the NFL definitely figured out long ago that their biggest game had to be staged in perfect conditions. Suppose it didn't. What if the 2013 Super Bowl wasn't set for New Orleans, under a dome. Suppose the NFL had decided all those years ago to give home-field advantage to the conference champ with the best record? Who's excited right now to see Baltimore in February?
But it's not just about location. It's about planning. The oldest and silliest complaint about the Super Bowl is that the game has become secondary to all the hype around it. Hype is the whole point. Most people who'll be in New Orleans this February won't be fans of either team playing on Sunday. They'll go because the NFL has managed to turn a four-hour game into a week-long carnival/ infomercial/ convention/ amusement park that celebrates their whole league and the entire sport of football. The Final Four captures some of that same spirit: The weekend feels more like a celebration of college hoops and the sport of basketball than whatever four teams made it.
More importantly, though, many who got to Big Easy for Super Bowl week won't care one bit about football, or sports. They'll go for concerts, swag, and celebrity-hosted red carpet parties thrown by Playboy or GQ or shoe companies or the makers of every beer, wine, spirit, and soft drink on earth. They'll go because they're rich and famous and want to show it, or just because New Orleans is The Place to Be that weekend. When was the last time a World Series felt that essential? Or even at all relevant?
Baseball can't replicate that success at the moment because of simple logistics. Planning all those VIP and CEO-worthy parties takes time—way more than the mere few-days notice that World Series host cities get. A neutral-site series would change that, giving MLB time to create a showcase week that's not only warmer, but more worthy of this beautiful sport.
Avoiding travel days would be another bonus. Imagine an entire seven-game series played in only eight days. That's a mini-series America might even watch. A neutral site would be even more environmentally friendly, as players and media wouldn't have to be shuttled between cities.
MLB could even revive the tradition of day-games and still meet TV's demand for starts in primetime. Just play in Hawaii. Problem solved. Better yet, make the World Series finally live up to its billing after a century and let other countries host the event. Imagine a series held in Dominican Republic, Venezuela, or even Japan. Maybe one day Cuba. Those would be moments of social relevance that no football game could hope to touch.
The disadvantages? Not many. Yes, a old baseball tradition would be broken. So? The World Series used to be a best-of-nine contest. That changed and the game is better for it. Ditto the much more recent additions of wildcards and play-in games.
OK, fans in the host cities would miss out a tiny bit. This year fans in San Francisco and Detroit wouldn't have gotten to see their team play precisely twice. You could argue that the average fans—those who sweat all summer with their team—would be excluded, because they couldn't afford the travel. But average-income fans get priced out of World Series tickets anyway.
Forget for a moment any argument against the neutral-site. What's the argument for the system we have now? Sentiment and two home games? A love of watching pitchers be allowed to blow on the hands?
And what's the alternative? To do nothing but watch as the World Series grows less relevant each year—a summertime sport playing the Fall Classic on the edge of winter, crying like Axl Rose about the cold November rain?