Baseball: Schedule Makers

When owners begin tampering with a schedule that packs 162 games for each of twenty-six teams into a six-month span, one thing leads to another

THE BASEBALL SEASON of 1983, like baseball seasons past, was supposed to begin with one special game in each league: an American League game in Baltimore—the idea being that President Reagan might be persuaded to come north and throw out the first ball— and a National League game in Cincinnati, in honor of the Reds’ standing as the oldest team in professional baseball. This scheme is not simply traditional; it’s in the rules: a ceremonial opening day is observed in no more than two cities, usually on a Monday or a Wednesday in early April, and the rest of the teams join in the following day. This year, however, Baltimore and Cincinnati, which also did the honors in 1982, will share their opening-day thunder with two additional American League games, in Arlington, Texas, and Oakland, California. Nobody in baseball is particularly happy about this development; it just happened. It seems the American League side of the 1983 schedule had a small glitch in it; league officials and club owners began fiddling with it, and, as often happens when someone begins fiddling with a schedule that packs 162 games for each of twenty-six teams into a maximum of 183 days, with a day off every three weeks to satisfy the players’ union, one thing led to another. This move, however, produced a conflict in the Bay Area with the National League’s San Francisco Giants, who are considered, for the purposes of scheduling, to be in the same market as Oakland. Wherever two teams play in close proximity (San Francisco—Oakland, Los Angeles-Anaheim, Chicago, and New York), the owners try to avoid having both at home on the same day. Because every team must play virtually every day, this means that one team is almost always home when the other is aw:ay. Oakland was supposed to be out of town on July 4, so the Giants had been scheduled at home, against the San Diego Padres. The Giants also had home games scheduled for Memorial Day and Labor Day. Would the Giants and the Padres agree to move their July 4 series down to San Diego, so the A’s could have a holiday all to themselves? The two National League teams agreed to the change, but, because a team must play each opponent an equal number of games at home and away, this would necessitate switching another Padres-Giants series from San Diego up to San Francisco. One such series was set for the opening of the season, and this was the one chosen for the switch. Of course, since San Francisco had originally been scheduled to open the season away, Oakland had been scheduled to open at home, so now another conflict appeared—for opening day, no less, which is generally a better attendance day than the Fourth of July. To evade this conflict, the American League petitioned the National for an exception to the normal opening-day rule. They said, let the A’s open one day ahead of schedule, on the same day as Baltimore and Cincinnati; this way San Francisco and San Diego can have the next day, their opening day, all to themselves. Perhaps because two of their own stood to benefit from this proposal, the National League owners agreed to it.

Bob Fishel, who works in the American League office as right-hand man to the president, Lee MacPhail, explained it to me this way: Sometime during the 1982 season, the management of the Oakland A’s looked closely at the proposed schedule for 1983 and noticed that the A’s would not be at home for any of the season’s three major holidays (Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day), which are considered by many teams, though not all, to be good days for attendance. Oakland’s July 4 opponent, the Texas Rangers, had home games scheduled for all three holidays, so, to redress the inequity, the schedule-makers suggested shifting Texas’s July 4 series to Oakland. Texas, after being promised a July 4 game for 1984, agreed.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, the Rangers—who, remember, had already parted with their July 4 game—were scheduled to begin their season with a threegame series against the Chicago White Sox, April 5, 6, and 7. On April 8, the Sox were due in Detroit for the Tigers’ home opener. Detroit wanted its opening-day game to be played in the afternoon—not only for tradition’s sake but also because Michigan nights in early April are usually too chilly for baseball. Texas, for its part, wanted its April 7 game to be a night game; in Arlington, where summer afternoons can be unbearably hot, almost every game is a night game. But the White Sox could not play a day game in Detroit after a night game in Texas; the Basic Agreement between the Players Association and the major leagues, the labor contract of professional baseball, prohibits a day game after a night game if a flight of more than ninety minutes intervenes. The American League therefore asked the Rangers to start their April 7 game no later than 5 P.M., the cutoff for a day game, to comply with the rule. But the Rangers pleaded for a different solution. Their adult fans, they said, would simply not come out for a 5 P.M. game, and their young fans would still be in the thick of the school year. The Rangers weren‘t worried only about gate income; they also feared bad publicity. If word got around that they’d drawn a measly two or three thousand on the third day of their season-opening series, the year would seem a failure almost before it had begun. The Rangers said they’d rather wipe the game off the schedule than play it at 5 P.M.; better yet, they said, why not let us play our usual night game on April 4, along with Baltimore, Cincinnati, and, now, Oakland? The American League owners found this a satisfactory solution to the problem, but the National League owners—who had already acceded to one perversion of opening-day tradition and had nothing to gain from another—refused to go along this time. In December, at the winter baseball meetings in Hawaii, Lee MacPhail thus was obliged to seek a formal change in the rules: he proposed that if circumstances permit no other reasonable solution to this sort of dilemma, the president of either league should be allowed to schedule extra games on the day of the traditional ceremonial openers. The American League clubs voted unanimously for this proposal. The National League clubs voted unanimously against it. Bowie Kuhn, the lame-duck commissioner of baseball, broke the tie by siding with the American League, and that’s why four games, not two, will be played on April 4.

BOB FISHEL UNRAVELED this story for me in his office at American League headquarters, on Park Avenue in New York, on a Wednesday afternoon in early January. He had one hand on his telephone and one eye on a large computer printout that lay spread over his desk. The 1983 American League schedule was about to be printed, and Fishel was phoning around the league to verify game times and check for last-minute changes. Coincidentally, he had spent a good portion of his morning working on the 1984 schedule, in a preliminary meeting with the four other people who work directly on the American League schedule: Lee MacPhail, Fishel’s boss; Bob Holbrook, who used to work in the league office and now, in semi-retirement, serves as a schedule consultant; and Henry and Holly Stephenson, a couple of young computer programmers who do the nuts-and-bolts scheduling for both major baseball leagues (as well as the National Basketball Association and the Major Indoor Soccer League). All agreed that with its political nominating conventions and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, 1984 was going to be a tougher year than most. Here are some of the things they talked about:

Squeeze weeks. Blake Cullen, who is Fishel’s counterpart in the National League, had already made clear that his league favored April 5 for the opening of the 1984 season, but the Stephensons lobbied for an April 2 start instead, arguing that the extra three days were needed to avoid a squeeze week. In a squeeze week, instead of the normal six games against two different teams, a team plays seven games against three different teams, a situation that is considered undesirable because it leads to, among other things, doubleheaders.

Once thought of by many teams as attractions, doubleheaders are now out of favor. Modern owners claim they cannot afford to give two games for the price of one. For a team that averages, say, 20,000 admissions per date at $5 a head, a doubleheader—even if it draws an extra 10,000 people into the stadium—represents a loss of $50,000, not countingparking and concessions revenue. For most clubs, that’s enough to pay a utility infielder’s salary for several weeks.

Warm weather. These two words, used either as an adjective or as a noun, are schedule-makers‘ shorthand for “scheduling early games in warm-weather cities,” an idea whose time came shortly after the anomalous April blizzards of 1982. The snows buried six opening-day games, from Milwaukee to New York, and caused the postponement of no fewer than seventeen games in the season’s first week. On April 10, the fifth day of their scheduled season, the Chicago White Sox had yet to play a single game. Rob Holbrook, who has been working on schedules for about eighteen years, served as the American League’s spokesman in the uproar that followed. For three days, he told me, sports reporters from all over the country phoned to inform him that some of the postponements could have been avoided through more fortuitous scheduling. The Seattle Mariners, who inhabit a domed stadium in their home town, began their season in the Minnesota Twins’ new dome, which was just opening in Minneapolis. Meanwhile, Boston was scheduled at Chicago, and California at Oakland. The curious callers, as well as a few outraged owners and managers, wanted to know: Why had the schedule-makers wasted an indoor stadium by putting Seattle in Minnesota? Why hadn‘t they sent Boston and Chicago to those cozy domes, or to the relative safety of Oakland and Anaheim? Why, for that matter, had they dragged the Texas Rangers up to Yankee Stadium instead of sending the Yankees to open in Texas?

Holbrook had answers to these specific questions: for example, the Seattle Mariners had been given the privilege of christening the Twins’ new stadium because they had never in their five-year history been favored with a “road opener”—that is, they had never collected the visitor’s share, 20 percent, of another team’s opening-day bonanza. However, to the more general question of why the schedule-makers hadn’t accounted for the possibility of snow in April, Holbrook could only answer that, first, they had many other things to worry about and, second, they didn’t think it was going to snow in April, Now, at least as long as the debacle is fresh in everybody’s mind, the schedulers have to assume that the opening-day snows could come again. One of the goals of their January meeting was to find, among the American League’s roster of fourteen clubs, seven “warm-weather cities where they could confidently schedule at least the first series of the season. Oakland would do, of course, but the National League might claim that 1984 would be San Francisco’s turn to open at home, because Oakland would be interfering with San Francisco’s opener in 198$. Anaheim would do, but 1984 would be the Dodgers’ turn to open in Los Angeles. Chicago would certainly not do, but the Cubs were supposed to open away in 1984, and if both the White Sox and the Cubs opened away, they would inevitably find themselves competing in Chicago at some point later in the season. The owners would either have to agree to some conflicts in the two-team markets or arrange to have Cleveland and Boston moved several hundred miles to the south.

Club considerations. Somewhat more predictable than the weather are club owners and general managers, who can be counted on year after year to scratch and fight for every possible scheduling advantage. At the meeting, Henry Stephenson passed around a summary of “individual club considerations” for 1984, compiled from the clubs’ responses to a scheduling questionnaire. The document makes fascinating reading. In addition to listing such things as football weekends and special-event dates for those cities that have municipal, multi-use stadiums, the summary presents each club’s wish list for the year. For 1984, the White Sox wish not to waste a visit from the Yankees, the league’s most potent attraction, in the month of April, when fan interest is generally low. This wish could be repeated by every other team in the league, but the Sox had the Yankees in April of 1982 and are scheduled to have them in April of 1983, so they may get their way in 1984. The Baltimore Orioles, as always, wish to be on the road during the Preakness Stakes—a horse race that rarely lasts longer than two minutes—partly, they say, because the traffic resulting from the two events would strain the resources of the police. The Twins have requested away dates for the second weekend in May; that is the beginning of Minnesota’s fishing season, an end-of-hibernation ritual that state residents observe with almost fanatic devotion. The Mariners hope to be away for Seattle’s annual Seafair; the Blue Jays want to be home for Canadian holidays and in the U.S. for American holidays; the Red Sox insist on being home on Patriot’s Day, when they traditionally schedule an 11 A.M. game, which will have a good chance of ending shortly before the finish of the Boston Marathon. Bob Holbrook, who has lived in Boston most of his life, tells me that the Red Sox usually register a few other preferences that didn’t show up on the questionnaire. Perhaps because of the city’s Irish heritage, Mother’s Day is a bad baseball day in Boston, and the Red Sox would rather celebrate it elsewhere. They also like to be away, Holbrook says, on Good Friday. Similarly, the Yankees have requested road trips for Easter weekend and Yom Kippur.

Political conventions. As Holbrook flipped through his copy of the wish list, he pointed out that the Texas Rangers had asked to be in Arlington during the Republican National Convention, which will be held in nearby Dallas; in 1980, he recalled, when the Republicans convened in Detroit, the Tigers asked to be away. Lee MacPhail said that if he were running a team in a convention city, he’d prefer to be away. Bob Fishel didn’t express an opinion on that, but he did say that when he and MacPhail worked together in the New York Yankees’ front office, they were careful to schedule television games opposite major network broadcasts from the convention floor. “We’d get great ratings,” he said.

According to Bob Holbrook, the difference between the Rangers’ preference and the Tigers’ is easily explained: the millionaire owner of the Rangers, Eddie Chiles, is a “big Republican.” Holbrook is probably right, but 1 have been pondering the matter since I first learned of it, and I’ve managed to fascinate myself with the notion that the attitudes of the two ball clubs somehow reflect the fortunes and characters of their cities. Detroit asks to be away on July 4 of 1984, and to be home for no more than one holiday in all, while Texas asks for home dates on both July 4 and Labor Day. The Rangers, whose stadium lies in the suburban sprawl between Dallas and Fort Worth, are reluctant to play an early - season game at five o’clock on a weekday evening, while the Tigers, who play in downtown Detroit, always ask for a weekday season opener, because businessmen there traditionally take that afternoon off and spend it at the ball park. Detroit, which has had big-league baseball since the turn of the century, seems to treat it as part of an everyday routine that would be disrupted by a holiday or a political convention. Texas, on the other hand, with an expansion team in the nation’s new belt of prosperity, thinks of major-league baseball as an occasion for community pride; You say the Republicans are comin’ to town? Hell, let’s throw ‘em a party!

Could this be another manifestation of the difference between the gray, crotchety urban North and the sunny, optimistic exurban South? I was quite fond of the idea until I considered the Cleveland Indians, another old, northern team that plays in a downtown stadium to a populace with much on its mind. Cleveland always insists on a Saturday home opener—these games sometimes draw more than 70,000 people—and the Indians love to be home on the Fourth of July.

Semi-repeaters. Some baseball people will tell you that the schedule is now “done on computer,” but that is not quite so. Henry and Holly Stephenson do work extensively with an IMS 8000 computer—it occupies a corner of their home in Staten Island—but “the machine,” as Henry calls it, serves mainly to monitor and report on the schedule as it is being developed. It tallies, for example, the number of miles each team is being asked to travel, and points out the conflict when a proposed change puts two teams from the same locale “at home” simultaneously. The schedule itself is still very much a pencil-and-eraser operation, one performed mostly by Holly, who, according to her husband, is “great at puzzles.”

If the schedule is a puzzle, its basic piece is the “semi-repeater,” a pattern devised by Harry Simmons, a kind, energetic, baseball-adoring gentleman of seventy-five who made the schedules for more than twenty years before the Stephensons replaced him, in 1981. (Simmons wrote the popular “So You Think You Know Baseball!” feature in the old Saturday Evening Post. It continues today, with a question mark instead of an exclamation point, in Baseball Digest.) Essentially, the semi-repeater is a minischedule in which one small group of teams plays two series against another small group, one series at home, the other away. A good example is found in the American League’s 1983 schedule for August: on the nineteenth of that month, each of the league’s three West Coast teams—California, Oakland, and Seattle—will play in the league’s Eastern Division. While California plays three games in Yankee Stadium, Seattle will play three in Cleveland, and Oakland three in Milwaukee. Then the teams will shuffle: Oakland will play New York while California plays Cleveland and Seattle plays Milwaukee. After one more shuffle, each of the teams in the western group will have played each of the teams in the eastern, whereupon all six teams will pack up, fly to the West Coast, and repeat the pattern—with variations—in the home stadiums of the western clubs. If the Angels played the Yankees in New York, and then played them immediately again in California, that would be a “back-to-back” series, or a “repeater” (and it would require a lot of air travel). The semi-repeater spreads the games out in time—though not enough to please many owners—and, by grouping the three western teams together and placing them on the coast at the same time, reduces travel expenses for the visitors.

In the American League, where each team plays thirteen games against the teams in its own division and twelve against those in the other division, each semi-repeater is played twice in a year: once in the “prime” half of the season— mid-June through Labor Day, when the weather is best and schoolchildren are on vacation—and once in the early or late stages of the season. (In the National League, whose twelve teams fall more easily into the twos and threes that tend to dominate the mathematics of the schedule, clubs play the teams in their own division eighteen times and those in the other division twelve.) Each pair of semi-repeaters can be arranged so that a team visiting on a weekend one time will come in midweek the next. Issues of “balance” like these are important to club owners, because the difference in dollars between a Friday-night game with the Yankees in July and a Tuesday - afternoon game with the Blue Jays in April can be enormous.

In the January schedule meeting, Lee MacPhail put one of the first semi-repeaters of the 1984 puzzle in place by pointing out that in the spring of that year, the first major movement of teams from east to west should involve three National League teams, traveling to play the San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the San Diego Padres. While these games were being played, the American League’s West Coast teams would be away, to avoid conflicts in Oakland-San Francisco and Anaheim-Los Angeles. When the National League’s West Coast teams flew east to “semi-repeat” their games in the home towns of the teams that had just visited them, then the American League’s western teams would play host to a group of three teams from the east. In other words, the National League semi-repeater had to be matched with its mirror image in the American League— standard procedure where two-team cities are involved. MacPhail communicated all this with nine words: “It’s the National League’s turn to go west first”—and everybody in the room nodded knowingly.

AS THE MEETING wound down and talk grew casual, the schedule-makers began to skip forward and back from the year 1984, and to make more liberal use of their arcane verbal shorthand. A disorienting sense of time travel settled over the conference table. In the minds, or at least the words, of the people in the room, the 1983 season, which would not begin for three months, was already over. They were talking about it in the past tense. Henry Stephenson had a perpetual-calendar book in his hand, and he was flipping back and forth through it while the others said things like “How did we handle that in ‘83?” and “They opened in the West in ‘83.” When Lee MacPhail casually mentioned that Easter of 1985 would fall on April 7, Stephenson let out a groan, as though he had immediately perceived the gravity of the situation. Then MacPhail said there was a good side to that—the season would not go past the end of September, which would mean relatively few games after Labor Day, though he may have been talking about 1986 by this time. In any case, everyone else in the room seemed to know just what he meant, and why one thing followed from the other.

—Michael Lenehan