It's tough to make everybody happy
Between monitoring injuries and fighting to stay afloat in the American League West, the Oakland Athletics recently found time to visit Baltimore for a two-game series at Camden Yards. They played the Orioles twice in 24 hours, then vanished before getting a sniff of Inner Harbor ambience.
Not to worry: Oakland will return to Baltimore for three more games May 25-27. For those keeping score at home, that's two cross-country getaway flights from Maryland to California in a span of 33 days.
Scheduling quirks, not surprisingly, have been a steady topic of conversation in the Oakland clubhouse.
For baseball players, grousing about the schedule is as routine as chewing sunflower seeds or making rookies wear cocktail dresses and high heels to the airport during the obligatory hazing trip. The average fan might regard it as just another case of millionaires whining, but fans don't have to step in the box in front of 50,000 people and produce while bleary-eyed and jet-lagged.
Listen closely, and you'll hear the Pittsburgh Pirates groaning en masse as they look at their schedule and contemplate that geographically challenged Houston-to-San Diego-to-Chicago trip in late September.
Or consider how thrilled the Texas Rangers must be looking forward to a nine-game Detroit-to-Oakland-to-Minnesota jaunt (with no day off) in the final month.
Things aren't nearly as chaotic for the Washington Nationals as three years ago, when they juggled home games in Canada and Puerto Rico as the orphan Montreal Expos. But stability is all relative. After dispensing with California in a tidy nine-game trip in 2006, the Nats will make separate visits to San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco this season.
"I'm not saying it's easy to make a major league schedule. I know it's not," said Washington catcher Brian Schneider. "But I don't see why a team from the East Coast has to go out three separate times. It just doesn't make sense."
Scheduling disruptions took center stage in April when a slew of weather-related postponements gummed up the works. A total of 21 games had been postponed before the death of St. Louis pitcher Josh Hancock on Sunday prompted the Cardinals and Cubs to make it 22.
No teams are in a bigger bind than the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners, who had four games wiped out because of heavy snow. Factor in rainouts with Texas and Boston, and the Mariners were six games in the hole right out of the chute. They made up the first of those six Thursday at Fenway Park.
Cleveland has already played three so-called "home games" in Milwaukee, and now they'll lose a real home game and three days off in making up the four-game series against Seattle.
The snowed-out games of April 6-8 will be played at Jacobs Field on May 21, June 11 and Aug. 30. The April 9 game will be held in Seattle on Sept. 26 as part of a doubleheader.
"There is no good or painless solution," said Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. "It's a matter of trying to find the most tolerable one for everyone. In the end, we have to view it as one more challenge and move on."
Through years of experience, MLB senior vice president of scheduling and club relations Katy Feeney knows that objections to the schedule are an occupational hazard. It's bound to happen when you throw 30 clubs with conflicting interests into the same pot. Factor in what Feeney calls the game's disadvantageous "math," and the task becomes even more daunting.
Symmetry is a foreign concept in Major League Baseball. Start with 16 teams in one league and 14 in the other, divisional configurations of 5-6-5 in the National League and 5-5-4 in the American, and the additional burden of interleague play, and you have an industrial strength headache waiting to happen.
"No one has ever been happy with the schedule," said Gene Orza of the Players Association. "But there have been some developments in the last 15 years or so that have complicated the process even more. When that happens, you have more gripes."
Each team has its own unique circumstances. Cincinnati is always home on Opening Day, while Boston plays at Fenway Park each Patriots Day. The Mets have potential traffic and parking concerns when the U.S. Open tennis tournament is in town, and the Minnesota Twins share the Metrodome with the NFL's Vikings.
And lest we forget, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Baltimore-Washington are all two-team markets. In a perfect world, one team will be at home while the other is on the road.
Throw in six pages of whys and wherefores governing scheduling in the collective bargaining agreement, and you have an extremely complicated jigsaw puzzle.
"You can take any short part of a team's schedule and say, 'That's awful. Why would anybody schedule that?'" Feeney said. "But you can't look at it that way. It's not a two-week schedule. It's a 26-week, 30-team schedule.'"
Times certainly have changed. From 1953 through 1982, a baseball historian and writer named Harry Simmons did the scheduling out of New York with just an endless supply of pencils, paper and ingenuity. He was succeeded by Henry and Holly Stephenson, a Massachusetts couple who had previously been involved in city planning in New York. They devised the schedule in an office out of their home on Martha's Vineyard.
Three years ago, MLB switched to the Sports Scheduling Group, a Pittsburgh company founded by a former Pirates executive and a Carnegie Mellon business professor. And the game's first fully computer-generated schedule was born.
No matter who's in charge, some complaints are inevitable. Walker, expressing the sentiment of many big leaguers, thinks players have too many days off in April, when they're still fresh, and not enough in August, when they're running on fumes.
The answer, in a nutshell, is economics. Teams don't want to play as many games in April, when the kids are still in school and attendance is naturally lower.
"That's where it becomes a case of baseball versus business," Feeney said.
Although nobody could have envisioned four straight snow-outs at Jacobs Field last month, the problem was compounded because it was Seattle's only visit to Cleveland. The Indians would have had an easier time making up those games if the opponent were Chicago, Detroit or an intradivisional club that makes multiple trips to Cleveland.
When weather runs amuck, no amount of planning can counteract it. In 1997, Major League Baseball decided almost all games in the first week would take place in domes or warm-weather sites. So naturally, the bad weather arrived in mid-April, and the result was 24 postponed games, according to Feeney.
Ironically, the Indians' Shapiro thought this season's schedule was eminently fair to his team before Cleveland suddenly turned into the baseball version of Siberia.
"You know what? It's an easy thing to complain about," Shapiro said of the scheduling process. "But in fairness, until you've sat down and tried to do it, you probably don't deserve the right to complain."
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