Envisioning a bold new National Leagueby Paul Francis Sullivan
January 20, 2011
There are three sleeping giants in the National League, and, no, I am not talking about San Francisco. The National League should have a trio of flagship franchises who have regular-season pennant races against their natural rivals, create playoff rivalries amongst each other and regularly become the senior circuit's representative in the World Series.
And their fan bases would have tentacles throughout the country to get transplanted fans and bandwagon jumpers to give them a national presence, in the way that the Yankees and Red Sox became polarizing, yet undeniably popular, teams. When any of these three teams come to town, tickets would be hard to get (and their prices jacked up). Fans would boo the team and the ever-present fans who make the trip to follow their club.
There could be a thriving and astonishingly popular National League. The problem is, the three potential flagship teams—the Mets, the Cubs and the Dodgers—are all a mess right now. And baseball should be doing everything in its power to get those three clubs to thrive, be productive, to win and have star power.
Now, this notion spits in the face in the idealistic, "we want every team to win every year, including the small market clubs," mantra that we are all supposed to chant in the name of fairness. But guess what? Expanding the appeal of baseball isn't always fair. It needs to be intertwined with television exposure.
I knew several people at Fox Sports who, in 2008, were practically acting as if it were Mardis Gras when it looked like the Cubs, Dodgers and Mets were all going to make the playoffs at once. Instead, the Mets fell apart, letting the Brewers in. The mood soured after that. Then the Cubs were swept and the Dodgers were eliminated, and the Phillies, not yet a national team, were in. It was a morgue at Fox during that World Series.
But, more importantly, which kind of team could spark rivalries with other teams in its division? A nondescript franchise from a small market? Or a team with deep roots in a big city? It is vital not only to have good teams to root for, but a bad guy to root against. As I stated in one of my blog videos, it is like a James Bond film. The best ones have the coolest villains.
The league is healthiest when the Yankees are good, just like the NBA needs the Celtics and Lakers to be good and football wants the Cowboys and Steelers to be good. Their popularity goes beyond the city limits. (Seriously, how many transplanted Mariners fans do you know?) Also, the venom of the opposition is stronger. (When was the last time you heard someone say, "I don't care who wins as long as it isn't the Marlins!")
So the trio of National League teams could spark interest on both coasts and the Midwest unlike any other combination of teams, and do so with distinct identities and blood enemies within their division.
The New York Mets
Always the sloppier alternative to the uptight, full-of-themselves Yankees, the Mets could embody the glamor of the big city but have a sense of humor about it. Basically, if the Yankees are Wall Street, the Mets would be the Village. Enough people are raised to despise the Yankees to make rooting for them impossible. But the Mets don't carry that baggage with them.
They could embody the scrappy, lunch pail New Yorker, all the while taking on the challenge of their rivals in Philadelphia. And over the years, the teams from Miami (transplanted New Yorkers), Atlanta (Southerners not trusting those yankees—the team and the people) and Washington (the REAL epicenter of the country) would take their shots at the Mets. There would be wonderful geographical and cultural rivalries, plus a little bit of likable scrappy little brother quality that the Mets would have.
Alas, the team is a mess. In somevways, 2006 was the worst thing that happened to the team. As they were one Carlos Beltran swing from the World Series (and maybe taking control of New York baseball), they have been operating as if they are just one player away from the elite level of teams. The result has been a string of horrible contracts and ill-fitting players. How was it everyone on the planet Earth knew Jason Bay was the wrong fit for CitiField except the people cutting him a check?
How can a single team possibly have so many massive deals for the likes of Oliver Perez, Francisco Rodriguez and Luis Castillo and see them not only be unproductive but also untradeable? How could a team suffer back-to-back collapses like they did in 2007 and 2008 and later have the indignity of Johan Santana's injuries?
The Mets seem to be trying to right their ship. Sandy Alderson rebuilt the A's and the Padres and could be the right man for the job. Terry Collins is a curious choice for manager, but maybe a change in culture is what they need. Just don't be too rigid, Terry. These are the Mets, not the Yankees.
The Chicago Cubs
Like their team name, the Cubs need to be the cute and cuddly National League powerhouse. They have the Midwest, homemade apple pie appeal. They play in a neighborhood where you can see the houses (with advertisements on the roof) from the ballpark. You almost expect someone from one of the houses to knock on the clubhouse door with a freshly baked pecan pie "for the boys." They play in a quaint park that looks like it has been untouched by time.
And the team itself would have that lovable quality. The fans in the bleachers would embrace their players and the faithful would call them all by their first names. And each player would go on about how great the tradition, the ivy and the fan base are as they fight to bring home a title.
And, of course, they are the keepers of the last great baseball curse. If Red Sox fans turned the whole "Reverse the Curse" rallying cry to national prominence like they had never seen before, the Cubs' need to win a World Series could make them the biggest team in baseball not named the Yankees.
Besides, Chicago is a hell of a lot bigger than Boston, and the Red Sox have won it twice. That storyline is getting stale. There are a whole bunch of new grandmas and grandpas who are dying without seeing their team win a World Series. This season will be 103 years and counting. (But who is counting?)
And the happy, feel-good, "Gosh darn it, we really want to win now!" approach could spark the other teams in their division. Their natural rivals, the Cardinals, have won the titles and currently have the aces the Cubs want. They could be the bullies keeping the nice, sweet Cubs from winning. You have the defending division champion Reds feeling that they are the true scrappy underdogs. Milwaukee fans to the north probably would want to beat the Cubs just to see their fans squirm some more. Houston fans, who have had their share of postseason strife, would have no patience for Cubs pity. And Pirate fans? Forget it. They would hear Cubs misery and think "Cry me a river!"
Of course the Cubs are in worse shape than the Mets. Both teams have expensive and bloated contracts that were the result of a series of failed pennant runs. And now Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, et al, are making the payroll huge and the rewards minimal. Unlike the Mets, the Cubs have yet to clean house.
Jim Hendry, the man who assembled an expensive but bad veteran team, still has his job and is making deals (like the Matt Garza trade or the Carlos Pena signing) that would only make sense if the Cubs were only a player or two away from being a contender.
They aren't. They are a lot of players away from being a contender (and perhaps a new GM away as well). Cub fans have been waiting for more than a century for a title. It will probably take a few years longer.
The Los Angeles Dodgers
If the Mets are the scrappy underdogs from the big city, and the Cubs are the lovable neighborhood team, then the Dodgers are the glamorous team. They have stars on the field and bigger stars in the box seats and luxury suites to cut to during the game. For the casual fan who just wants to gawk over famous faces, they would turn to the Dodgers. Their park isn't nestled into a neighborhood. It sits on a mountain overlooking the City of Angels.
Plus, their history isn't that of losing or falling short. When the Dodgers have won, they've done so with some of the biggest names in the game and a steady manager guiding the way. They've done it with charismatic ace pitchers and steady clutch hitting. And they've won with a flair for the dramatic befitting a Hollywood script.
The have the world champion Giants in their division, and their fans hate everything about Los Angeles. They have the Padres to the south whose fans (when they show up) would love to knock the Dodgers off their perch. And the fans in Colorado and Arizona would just love to upset the apple cart and stick it to California.
The Dodgers of recent years got real close to the World Series and looked like they were fitting right into the classic Dodger mold. They had the style, the manager and a lot of the talent. But they desperately needed the big ace. The Clayton Kershaws and Chad Billingsleys of the world were talented, but they lacked a true No. 1 starter.
After Joe Torre arrived in Los Angeles, the 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 AL Cy Young winners all changed teams. Cliff Lee changed teams four times! CC Sabathia changed uniforms twice! Roy Halladay went elsewhere. Johan Santana, Dan Haren, John Lackey... etc., etc., etc. And none of them went to Chavez Ravine. It is no mystery why.
The McCourts can claim all they want that their reenacting of The War of the Roses had no effect on how they spent money on their team. Reality and logic paint a different picture. Reality and logic rarely lose to someone going through a painful public divorce.
So the Torre era ended and the Don Mattingly era begins. The Dodgers seem to be in even more denial than the Cubs
Now before anyone says, "How can you tell what the personalities of the teams will be unless you know who the players are?" let me make two important points:
First of all, the personality of every single professional sports team conforms with the city they play in, no matter who the players are. A Los Angeles team that wins will always be considered glamorous. A Pittsburgh championship team will be labeled "scrappy" and "blue collar" regardless of the personel.
A team like the 1979 Pirates was considered to be a tough, likable squad who reflected the Steel City. But if you took the Hall of Famers (Willie Stargell and Bert Blyleven) and superstars (like Dave Parker and John Candelaria), the crazy stars on their hats and dancing to disco music and transplanted that to the Giants, people would say they reflected the loose, crazy attitude of San Francisco.
No matter who is on the Mets, Cubs or Dodgers, the franchise's and city's personality will override the players. Look how Kirk Gibson went from the rough-around-the-edges, tough-as-nails Detroit Tiger to the dramatic, "Hollywood ending that can't be written in a movie" star of the Dodgers! It was the same guy playing the same way. Different perceptions.
Secondly, and most importantly, this is about marketing and perception. The Red Sox of 2004 were portrayed as a crazy, close-knit bunch winning for the dying grandparents of New England. In truth, they were almost all cobbled together from other teams, and they won because their pitching staff was deep, not because their hair was long. It made for a nice story, but if the Red Sox bullpen wavered in the ALCS, then Dave Roberts' stolen base would have been a forgotten footnote.
As I said in my video about marketing the Giants, baseball needs to add juice to their fan base. (No, not THAT kind of juice.) The trio of National League powerhouses in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles should be driving the National League. It should be a shorthand of what kind of fan you are—the way being a Raider, Packer, Cowboy or Steeler fan is in football.
Now, there is hope. Lots of bad contracts are coming off the books for the Mets and Cubs after the 2011 season. And no doubt soon a new ownership will take over the Dodgers. They will have money. But then again, the problem for the Cubs and the Mets wasn't failing to spend enough money, but spending it wisely.
Those three teams should get wise. They have a unique opportunity to define the National League for a new generation of fans.