If Albert Pujols were to retire today hed be considered for the HOF. Were lucky to get to see him for a few more years.

If Albert Pujols were to retire today he'd be considered for the HOF. We're lucky to get to see him for a few more years.

Amid the hype and hoopla of NFL Kickoff this weekend, the MLB playoff races continue, albeit that most of the races are over at this point.  If you get the chance to at some point this weekend, though, do yourself a favor and take a really good long look at what Albert Pujols is doing for the St. Louis Cardinals right now.  Even though it’s looking less and less likely that he’ll win the Triple Crown this year, he is still having another one of the great individual seasons in this decade (this is taking out any and all possible and definite steroid-enhanced seasons).  Pujols will without a doubt be named NL MVP at the end of the season and it will once again bring up the question of how good he could be at the end of his career.

Many of the baseball experts have been very vocal about how good he actually is.  ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian has said more than once that Pujols could go down as “one of the top 5 hitters of all-time.”  Whoa.  It’s rare when someone is called a Hall of Fame-caliber player, but one of the best ever?  That is some truly amazing praise for a guy who in his career is hitting .334 and is quickly closing in on 400 career home runs, with a lot of years left in his career.

Of course, in this era in baseball, it goes without saying that all of this greatness is contingent upon whether or not Albert Pujols is clean.  I truly believe he is, and I think that just about every baseball fan hopes he is.  If Pujols were to be found out as a cheater, it would be an absolutely devastating blow to baseball fans, players, and the business of baseball, in general.

Cards Fans have has a lot to cheer about in the 2000s, including their World Series in 06

Cards Fans have has a lot to cheer about in the 2000s, including their World Series in '06

I look back to this summer when it was announced that both David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were on “The List.”  That evening I called a friend and a big Red Sox fan and she literally cried on the phone when I brought it up.  Imagine the reaction in the fairly new Busch Stadium if it came out that Pujols was no better.  All of a sudden, the Cardinals faithful would be eerily quiet, and some of them might be turned away from the game forever.  I only say that because that would be my reaction if I were to find out that the face of my franchise, Derek Jeter, were to be caught.  It’s something that you have to think about.

That aside, I was asked who baseball’s next hero was going to be a few months back and I immediately responded with “Go watch Albert Pujols.”  He is the rare kind of player that, at the end of his career, all fans will look at and say “That guy was great, one of the best.”  Much like Cal Ripken Jr. and the Great (Tainted) Home Run Chase saved baseball after the 1994 strike, as Pujols approaches those records once thought to be impossible to surpass, he has the ability to lift the MLB out of the shadows of the Steroid Era.  There is no other player out there right now who is capable of such a feat.  So, if you can get yourself away from College Football Saturday and NFL Sunday, just take a peek at one of the great athletes of our generation, I’m sure he won’t disappoint.

 

MLB: At least we dont have Michael Vick!!!

MLB: "At least we don't have Michael Vick!!!"

Since the advent of the wild card berths into the Major League Baseball playoffs in 1995, many baseball fans have had reason to cry foul as their team was denied the wild card while a team with a worse record got into the playoffs by virtue of playing in a weaker division.  Most would argue that this is a sign of parity in the league and that these teams are few and far between.  However, if the season were to end today, both the Texas Rangers and the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays would finish with better records than the AL Central-leading Detroit Tigers, quite conceivably as a result of having to play teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, and Mariners more often than the Tigers.  There is a simple solution to this: Eliminate one division from each league and have 2 wild card teams, that would be determined by best overall record, regardless of what place a team finished in their respective division.  

The basic setup for the 4 division system is simple enough, in fact, this is what it would probably look like:

AL East: New York, Boston, Baltimore, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit

AL West: Los Angeles, Texas, Seattle, Oakland, Minnesota, Kansas City, Milwaukee (Note: The Brewers would be moved back to the American League in order to have 15 teams in each league, which is the way it should be anyway, but that’s another topic entirely)

NL East: New York, Philadelphia, Florida, Washington, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati

NL West: Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Los Angeles, Colorado, San Francisco, Arizona, San Diego

See? That wasn’t that hard.  Now obviously we run into 3 key issues under this system. Fortunately, there are simple solutions to all of these problems.

Problem #1: The West divisions are spread out a LOT more than the East.  Is that fair?
Solution: No, it’s not. That’s why MLB will redraft its schedule and create a balanced schedule where every team in both leagues play each other 11-12 times every year and interleague play, which has really lost its novelty anyway, will be eliminated from the schedule, because how many extra fans really were going to that Nationals-Royals series in the middle of a week, anyway?

Yeah, you better be listening! Now if only anyone could find you...

Yeah, you better be listening! Now if only anyone could find you...

Problem #2: Two of the divisions have 8 teams, but the other two divisions only have 7, what gives?!?
Solution: This isn’t a new problem, just look at the standings today, where you have a four-team AL West and a six-team NL Central.  This creates a unique opportunity for Major League Baseball to expand to 32 teams, though.  I would suggest Charlotte or Nashville for one team and Las Vegas or Portland for the other.  These are all cities that have showed interest in having pro sports in a greater capacity.  Also, by adding the two Western teams to the league, you can shift a team (I would suggest the Brewers since they played in the AL East before division realignment) back into a division that would be less difficult on them with respect to travel.

Problem #3: The balanced schedule is economically unfair to small-market teams who will have to place more money into travel costs that could otherwise be used on acquiring players. Isn’t this just a way for the bigger clubs to push the smaller ones around?
Solution: Yes, this is why two things would need to be put in place in order to preserve the competitive balance of the game. First would be an increase in the amount of revenue sharing between clubs, so as to offset the slight increase in travel expenses.  Second would be the institution of a salary cap system that operates like the NFL’s, one that increases on a yearly basis and has probably been one of the major reason that the NFL is by far the most balanced league out of the major American sports.  This will put teams in position to be more competitive and will lead to increased attendance for teams that are struggling, thus creating record revenues for MLB.  (Note: Of course, I say this without doing any true research, but fundamental economics would suggest #2 and #3 as true. This is also one of the first times I have actually applied my major to something, so now I can’t say I’ll never use that economics degree.)

So there you have it, in a nutshell.  Of course I say this all while assuming that baseball will not kill itself via syringes and tainted records, but until that happens, MLB and its commissioner-in-hiding Bud Selig should seriously consider division realignment, lest we run into another 2006, where a team that played about .500 all year wins the World Series and gives great merit to the argument that the the MLB regular season doesn’t matter.

With Summer upon us and the never ending Basketball Playoffs almost over (what…you thought this would be a basketball column after last nights amazing comeback by the Celtics?  Don’t waste your time here and read a much funnier account of anything that I could do), America’s Pastime takes front and center in the sports world. Just recently, I have started watching a couple of games a week, mainly New York Mets games unfortunately. And I must say, this season just seems weird. Everything seems upside down. The Florida teams are over five-hundred and contending for division leads and the two Chicago teams are now at the center of the baseball universe by having the two best teams in baseball. Big name stars such as David Ortiz, Jake Peavy, Travis Hafner, Rafael Furcal, Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano, and Albert Puljos have or are currently on the disabled list. Big market teams like the New York Mets, the Yankees, the Detroit Tigers, and the Dodgers are all struggling and underwhelming fans.

But disappointment should be expected, because if everything played out the way it was expected, why would people watch?

But I have been struggling more and more to find a reason to watch baseball this season. The game just seems slow and boring. Now that the Yankees are finally playing down to their pitching, there is nobody to hate anymore (even though Hank is doing his best George Steinbrenner impersonation).  The injuries are piling up and every pitcher seems to be unable to grasp the concept of holding a lead (or at least every Mets reliever…all three of them who came in after Johan Santana pitched seven shutout innings yesterday afternoon, let in a run, with Billy Wagner blowing his third straight save by giving up two runs in the ninth.  I thought he was supposed to be good.  What gives?)

And yet it goes deeper than that…

I know this article is probably 3-6 months too late (I don’t even remember when the Mitchell Report came out, it just seems so long ago, but still so present), but after the steroid scandal rocked the baseball world, the sport just hasn’t been the same for me.  Baseball lost so much credibility after the steroids scandal, I just don’t know anymore if my boyhood heroes were clean, and that bothers me. 

I remember watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battle it out for the home run record in the summer of 1998 and believing that these two players were not just ordinary human beings but super-humans capable of extradorinary feats of stregnth (sort of like Frank Costanza’s perfect world model for the Festivus celebration). 

This story always stuck in my mind.  My parents went away on a vacation when I was in Middle School to Paris and when he came back, the first thing he told me was that when he was in the airport, multiple people came up to him and asked him for his autograph thinking he was Mark McGwire.  Now, my father is not nearly as big as McGwire but his face looks similar and he was wearing a Cooperstown shirt (for all those who don’t know what Cooperstown is, its the Baseball Hall of Fame).  I always thought that was so cool and my father and I joked about it constantly. 

Now though, after it was revealed that McGwire possibly used steroids (and its not like his testimony in Congress was reassuring), that story embarrasses me because it connects my father to a disgraced baseball player and a dark time in the sport. 

The titans of baseball just don’t seem legitimate.  I mean, look at these guys.  They’re almost as big as football players, and in some cases, much bigger (I’m talking to you C.C. Sabbathia).  Maybe its the evolution of the athlete, but I don’t buy it.  Thats the thing I used to like about Baseball, these average looking guys would go out and destroy people with their intensity and sheer talent.  Now, the talent level is down, the testerone level is up, and the average fan can no longer connect to the star player on their team.  These guys are no longer average joe’s just playing some ball but highly pampered athletes with designer drugs. 

Mr. Selig, please do something!

But I guess baseball will come back strong.  There have always been scandals.  Pete Rose gambling on games, the White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, and the Cocaine scandal of the 1980’s are just a few. 

Still I don’t know if baseball can recover from this and remain credible. 

BEARD

PS- And in a theater near you this summer: the NBA where “Scumbag ex-refs have more credibility than the Commish Happens”… I mean WOW, who would’ve thought that David Stern would’ve screwed this up?  Really?  You can’t do better than this?  Scumbag ex-ref is embarrasing you!  You gotta focus and keep your eyes on the prize!