Offseason Daydreaming #2: Everything's Better in Bracket Form

On this website I usually go by the moniker: "The Scruffy Rube". However, my family knows me, by another name: "Bracket Boy". See, I run the family's March Madness pool, and whenever my brothers and I imagined a competition (be it video-game or backyard) I came up with the competition's structure.

During the off-season there's no shortage of brackets to explore and study and gawp at, and I admit that I enjoy just about all of them. And I must admit, that as much as I love baseball--in terms of brackets--it can't hold a candle to how other sports structure and use these little devils. So this offseason, as I watched other sports I wondered how baseball could improve their use of brackets...and came up with the following little idea.

The best bracket belongs to college basketball, as pretty much every sports fan watching the last month of games can attest. But the NCAA uses their bracket to pick a champion, and baseball probably shouldn't be adding games to the end of the season--diluting the playoffs, and risking the health of players. But what if I told you we could add a tournament mid-season, turning mid-May, early-August snooze fests into riveting, playoff baseball? It can be done, and it can be done by cribbing a plan from the most popular sport on the planet: futbol aka soccer.

For those of you who don't follow international soccer leagues, allow me to explain. In professional soccer you win the league title by playing a long, grueling season against all the other teams in your league. That's the gold medal, the unquestioned goal for all. BUT! to add a little drama and a few more shiny things to the mix, teams also compete in a "Cup" competition, following a bracket structure to fight for a title that's decided before the league title. This way a team that perennially finishes in the middle of the league can win a trophy and give their fans some exciting baseball to cheer for.

Let me explain how this would work (in my head). Both American and National Leagues have their own Cups (we'll call them the Ban Johnson Cup and the William Hulbert Cup for the founders of the two leagues). Next, draw teams into the bracket: we could do this a couple ways--rank the teams according to their record from the previous year, according to their spring training record this year, number of all stars, or basically via random ping-pong balls. Since the European leagues like ping-pong balls, I'll go with that method here. Since the National League has 16 teams that works out into 8 neat and easy first round match ups. As shown below:
The American League has 14 teams, so that's a little more complicated. I'll put in 6 first round match-ups and give 2 random teams a first round bye; even though that gives an advantage to teams who might not deserve it...such are the effects of the fickle fingers of fate (lucky Mariners):
Each round can be a simple three-game series that counts to a team's overall record in the league. Hold them whenever you like: Monday-Wednesday? Tuesday-Thursday? Friday-Sunday? Whatever you want! Have one series near the start of May, round 2 in June, round 3 in July and the finals in the dog days of August. For the sake of showing what this would look like I did a rudimentary "simulation" using team-v.s.-team records from last season and advancing the team who won more games. Here's how the NL (William Cuthbert Cup) Turned out:
And here's the AL (Ban Johnson Cup):
A few quick thoughts here: Notice that while several premier teams reached the semi-finals in each round, it was not a perfect match for the teams that made the play-offs last year. Of last year's NL play-off teams only the Braves made the "final four" and in the AL the two League Championship Teams (Yankees & Rangers) were bounced in the first round. It's also worth noting that my "simulation" doesn't take into account some of the unlikely series that occur in your typical baseball season. For instance, while the Braves won the Cuthbert Cup, they did drop an ugly series in Pittsburgh last September...Who's to say they couldn't do the same this May? Setting up a Pirates v. Astros series that actually MEANS something.

I know there are some flaws with my plan: for instance--how do you slip these games into the season? {My thought was to dump inter-league games and use these instead, with the teams who lose a stage of the competition playing inter-league games during future rounds.} Couldn't this lead to imbalanced schedules for teams competing for playoff spots? {Yes, but inter-league already does that when the Twins had to play the Braves, and Phillies while the White Sox beat up on the Cubs and Nationals.} How do you make sure that everyone gets an equal number of home & away games? {No clear answer to that, we might need to have TBA series scheduled throughout the summer so that the Commissioner can make sure things come out even.}

I'm sure there are many more (feel free to jot them in the comments below, I like the mental exercise), but for now I just wanted to run this idea up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it. I think it adds drama to a long season, sells tickets in forgotten markets, gives owners something to brag about, gives players something to add to their resumes come free agency and gives fans across the country a bracket to dissect and cheer about all summer long.

(And now, at last I'm going to bed...hopefully this late-night brainwave was as fun for you as it was for me. And remember...three more days until the Twins season starts!)


Offseason Daydreaming #1: Expanding Twins Territory into a Twins Empire

The season's right around the corner, but if you're a baseball fan you've probably been thinking about the game all winter long. In that spirit I present one of the impractical daydreams I had this winter, just to get it off my chest onto yours.

I admit, I'm pretty excited about the first Japanese position player to wear the TC on his cap. Tsuyoshi Nishioka's got speed, he's got style up the middle, he's got a laid back attitude and he's willing to do anything to help the team. I'm pleased as punch...more than punch...I'm as pleased as the Kool-Aid Man's Punch Like substance

Part of my happiness is related to the fact that we've got a good middle infielder, and part of my happiness comes from the fact that now the Twins have something to boast about overseas. As someone who has travelled around the world, I can tell you that baseball isn't tremendously popular abroad, but shouting out: "New York Yankees!" is.

Even though people in Africa and Asia don't know much about baseball, they know the Yankees. The Yankees are a multi-billion dollar industry, and if you see US baseball caps elsewhere in the world, they're usually Yankees caps. So when I say "I cheer for the Minnesota Twins" I get a lot of "who?" and a little bit of "what/where?" Part of me hopes that Nishioka might make us a little more popular, might lead to a few more fans, and might (just might) be a big fat "pbbbt" to the Yankees global hegemony.

But, I figure, why limit ourselves to just Japan? We've got a fair few fellas from the Caribbean and that's nice, we've got the Aussie, Luke Hughes, fighting for a spot on the opening day roster, we had the Flying Dutchman Bert Blyleven...but why not look to some new territory...why not sign the first Indian to a major league contract?

If you didn't know, I used to live in India (check the archives on my other blog for more info). While I lived there it was hard to follow baseball, but really easy to follow cricket: the subcontinent's sporting obsession. And while I would never start a blog entitled: "Tea Crumpets from Heaven" I do actually like the sport. It's like a long home run derby with the batter in the middle of the field, and the pitcher entitled to run up to the rubber before throwing (thereby making the ball go by VERY quickly). And while living in India, I naturally fell for the national cricket team, a talented but often unlucky side who often falls short in the playoffs (remind you of anybody else?).

So here's my idea, let's go after Sachin Tendulkar, the best batsman in India's history. He could play a corner outfield position or serve as designated hitter, and maybe, just maybe, feel like he's got nothing to lose by trying out the game with the round bat rather than the flat one. In my fevered imagination I can see him trying out in February 2012, establishing an incentive laden contract to replace Jim Thome, and hitting somewhere around .300 with about 20 home runs...true he might be more comfortable hitting balls that bounce in the dirt before they cross the plate, but heck, it works for Vladmir Gurrero! Best of all it makes the Minnesota Twins THE baseball team in India, which (as you may know) has a fairly large population.

I know this is impractical. That baseball and cricket prefer to be estranged from each other rather than integrated. That asking an Indian mega-star like Tendulkar to play a bench role in Minnesota is like asking Johnny Depp if he'd be willing to be an understudy for a play in Estonia. But still...when you're deprived of baseball all winter, but blessed with cricket, these are the ideas that float through your head, and until I see Sachin swing and miss at an Oriole's pitch, I'll prefer to believe that it COULD work. Anybody willing to take this to Bill Smith?


Coping with the loss of Pat Neshek

Okay, so if you're a frequent reader of this blog you probably have been wondering: "hey, why haven't the heavenly peanuts written anything in a month? Are they trapped under something heavy like an armoire or a zeppelin?" No gentle reader, we were only trapped under the soul crushing obligations of graduate school; in particular, I was up to my neck in Masters Thesis frooferah. {Long story short: after many revisions, speeches, extra revisions and technological snafus I am a Master of my (intellectual) Domain! This means less with the working, and more with the obsessive Twins following, so win-win!}

I'm also writing today because I was personally surprised at how much a little blurb on ESPN affected me yesterday morning. Quoth the behemoth of sports journalism: "The San Diego Padres have claimed right-hander Pat Neshek off waivers from the Minnesota Twins."

I saw that and my first thought was: "What? No...this has to be some kind of mistake." But sure enough, Sideshow Pat's taking his side-slinging act to southern California. My next thought was: "What the fuchia Twins? Don't let this happen! Stop it!!" Then I thought: "Didn't we get anything for him? A prospect? Some cash?!? Something?" And then, I sighed, remembered that for as much effort as we care about the Twins, Pat might have a better career in an easier league with a team that can play him. Then I smiled at the happy memories and wished him the best. I talked with Stinky through most of my reactions and she had many of the same feelings. I called my mom and she too felt as flabbergasted, confused, but ultimately hopeful for him.

After all this, I realized that I had gone through a minor form of the stages of grief over a baseball player...not a dead one, a traded one...and not a big star, a middle reliever whose best year was 3-4 years ago. I suddenly imagined what some of my non-sports-mad friends would say at my behavior. Sitting around, rolling their eyes, clucking their tongues and saying: "shouldn't you worry about something more important than this?"

So I wonder...is it wrong of me to have so much emotional investment in a ballplayer that I grieve when he leaves my team? He's a professional athlete doing what he loves to do, and he does not know me, or (probably) care who I am and how I feel. I've just written a masters thesis, I need to find a job, there are tsunamis and civil wars and police actions and everything...am I totally nuts to care about Pat Neshek?

Answer: Yes. Yes I am...and what's more, I like being this nuts.

See, I think that our modern society lets us live in our own little bubbles. We plug into our i-pods and walk numbly down the street. We watch cable news personalities who endorse our personal views. We cling to what's ours, guarding our belongings, our personal space, our everything with fierce tenacity.

But if you're a baseball fan, you have to connect with other people, you high-five other random fans at the game and nod your approval when you see someone else walking down the street wearing the right baseball cap. Even players in the game have to rely on each other because no single player can dominate the game. You can't play right field and third base simultaneously. You can't hit a double, then call "ghosties" and knock yourself in. Baseball forces us to rely on each other, and I like that.

And over the long season fans and players grow together, and it feels like we're all buddies or neighbors or second cousins. You learn weird trivia, like that Neshek was a vegetarian who went to Butler University. In my imagination, I could have seen Neshek at any Twin Cities grocery store nodding his approval at a guy in a Twins cap and offering his recipe for picking out a ripe eggplant if you said you were confused. Maybe this wouldn't have happened...but I feel like it's more likely to happen among baseball fans/players than among the rest of the populace at large, and I love that feeling.

I don't want to just think about those things that are "more important" than Pat Neshek getting traded, I want to connect with them. The first word of the tsunami, sent me straight to e-mail to check if my old students were okay. And when a gas main blew up in south Minneapolis last week, right away I thought about who could be near the area and how I could help them if they needed me. I want to be connected to other people, and being a Twins fan makes me feel connected with lots of people, the fans and the pros, and even the guy who just got traded.

I hope Pat Neshek does well, I really do. I hope he gets a major league roster spot, and a condo with a view of the ocean and a vegetable co-op next door, and a couple moreButler Bulldog miracles. I hope everybody gets what would make them happiest in the world. And now that my thesis is done and a return to Minnesota is on the horizon, what would make me happy is having some more people to share it with...my family, my friends, my fellow Twins fans and maybe even Pat Neshek (assuming he finds out I exist).