Commentary

Many ways for Series to become Super

Originally Published: January 29, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Here at Rumblings and Grumblings, we know exactly what the World Series is -- namely, the most historic championship extravaganza in sports.

We also know precisely what the Super Bowl is -- namely, the most convenient sports excuse ever invented to goof off, consume every food and beverage item in your refrigerator and sit riveted in front of your flat-screen awaiting the dramatic appearance of the GoDaddy Girl.

So if you asked us knuckleheads at International Rumblings and Grumblings Headquarters which of these sporting attractions we'd rather watch, we'll take the World Series. Every time.

[+] Enlarge2008 World Series
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe World Series is Major League Baseball's signature event.
But obviously, we're not normal. Uh, wait. Let's rephrase that. We mean, obviously, we're not typical -- because the ratings show the Super Bowl is the most watched sporting event of the year, while the last World Series didn't even outrate the NBA Finals.

So as another Super Bowl looms on our digestive system's horizon, we thought this was the perfect occasion to ask a critical question:

Is there anything baseball can learn from the way the NFL milks every Roman-numeralized ounce of marketability out of the Super Bowl?

We have our own thoughts on that matter. But we also fungoed that question in the direction of two astute men with unique insight into this topic -- Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, and Dennis Mannion, now the chief operating officer for the Los Angeles Dodgers but formerly the senior vice president of business ventures for the Baltimore Ravens for nine years.

And their answer, like ours, was: Of course.

So how could we go about making an event as great as the World Series even better? Here's how:

Make it a cultural event, not just a sporting event

The World Series can't ever be the Super Bowl. Everybody needs to concede that before we type another sentence. It's impossible for a best-of-seven series played in midautumn to have the stop-everything pull of a single game played on a Sunday in February. But …

That doesn't mean baseball shouldn't aspire to do what the NFL has done -- turn its championship into more than a mere sporting event.

"There have been a number of events -- like the Kentucky Derby and the Indy 500 -- that have traditionally been iconic events on the calendar, that serve as kind of a pseudo-holiday," Swangard said. "The Super Bowl is one of the few iconic events left. … But if any sport would have the opportunity to do what the NFL has done with the Super Bowl, I'd like to think it's baseball, with its history and all the good things that are going on now in that sport."

So how could that happen? Keep reading.

Turn Game 1 into the biggest baseball day of the year

There's really no baseball equivalent of the Super Bowl, unless it's Game 7 of the World Series. But Game 7s don't come along every year. In fact, we haven't witnessed one in 6½ years. So it's impossible to build around a Game 7 that might never happen.

Which means it's time to look at the next-best alternative -- Game 1.

"There are ways to do that," Swangard said. "There are ways to build that interest and that buzz, to create the sense that there's something about Game 1 that's so compelling, you can't miss it. You're trying to send the message that there's something about the start of the World Series that is, to the end of the year, what Opening Day is to the beginning of the year. … You want to say, 'Day 1 of the World Series is a day we should own in American sports.'"

So how do you accomplish that? Swangard envisions using some of the same distinctive twists baseball has applied to the All-Star Game: Legends and Hall of Famers everywhere you look. Special ceremonies that involve the most recognizable faces in America -- and not necessarily just baseball faces. Media blitzes that are designed to make sure the best human stories of the World Series are not being told just on "SportsCenter."

TRIVIALITY

Eight players in baseball have averaged at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs this decade. Can you name them? (Answer later.)

But even that wouldn't be enough to expand the audience beyond its old, traditional bounds. So baseball also needs to …

Dance to the music

"To reach that audience [beyond baseball fans], it takes a blending of sports and entertainment together," Mannion said. "And when you're looking to do that, music is one of the best ways to go."

What Mannion and Swangard envision is a spectacular combination of the Super Bowl halftime show, the NBA All-Star Jam and (our suggestion) Live 8. We're talking about a major concert production that would involve huge names, be nationally televised by, say, MTV the night before the World Series and wouldn't necessarily have to be confined to the site of Game 1.

"You could literally have kickoff parties for the World Series in every major league city," Mannion said. "You could expand this to every city and every ballpark. It would be awesome."

OK, so there are questions about whether Bostonians would want to celebrate the World Series if the Red Sox had just lost to the Rays or Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS. But if you were to book them John Legend or Bono, we'd bet you could get them to show up, right?

Still, we know what the baseball folks are thinking: Wouldn't this be a logistical nightmare? Ehhhh, sure. But there are ways around that, too. Such as …

Micromanage

After spending nine years working in the NFL, Mannion is still shaking his head about what planaholics those football pooh-bahs are, compared with just about anyone else in sports.

"Where the NFL has the edge … for whatever reason, is that their planning [for their biggest event] is meticulous," Mannion said. "Some of that is just knowing, a couple of years out, exactly where and when the game is. But some of it is also the culture, of worrying about every detail. It's almost got a military feeling. … It's something baseball should definitely aspire to."

The problem in baseball, though, is that you can't plan for the World Series in one stadium. You'd have to plan for all 30 stadiums. That's a great excuse not to plan much at all. But it's not a great reason to avoid making those plans.

"Why can't you have a plan for 30 sites?" Mannion wondered. "Why not have a plan: Here's how we would execute a World Series in every site. … Since it's always a last-minute deal, you could probably accomplish that by having a manual for every city -- exactly what it would take to hold a Division Series, a League Championship Series and the World Series.

"You'd design your entire infrastructure -- your hotels, your air travel, your local entertainment. And then you'd depend on the teams to update the manual. But it could be done."

And if it were done, there always would be plans in place -- and an extravaganza ready to bust out. But that would be just the beginning, naturally. The next step is …

Embrace technology

So, say baseball could succeed in pulling off Swangard's vision -- of making Game 1 of the World Series a must-see event. Then what?

You don't have to build another Super Bowl to say you're successful. You just have to create something of relevance outside the tradition of mainstream fans. And that's to turn [the World Series] into a cultural event that everyone watches.

-- Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon

It would seem likely that viewership would tail off for a couple of games in your average World Series until the plotlines formed and the drama began to mount. But Mannion has other ideas.

He watched how his sons got hooked on baseball by playing video games that taught them the many strategic levels of the sport. So, he wonders, why not use technology to keep fans hooked from the first inning of the first game?

"Part of the fun of football is its natural breaks and its huddles that have everyone guessing, 'Pass or run?'" he said. "But baseball has the same opportunity."

How? By using modern technological tools to "make a passive game very interactive," Mannion said. He envisions using new media to make people watching the game feel like part of the game -- by inviting them to predict, on their computers or their iPhones or their digital converter boxes, which pitch is coming next, where the next ball will be hit, whether the hitter will be safe or out, etc., etc.

Pull that off effectively, and you're literally transporting a new generation of fans inside the action. So with every game, as the two teams begin to get a better feel for each other, the audience also is getting a better feel for what might happen next. Then, he envisions selling that interactivity component to sponsors, which heightens their connection to the World Series, too.

Sounds pretty darned brilliant to us.

But that's just a sliver of what could be done, what needs to be done. This event needs earlier starting times, and Bud Selig agrees. On weekends, it needs a Super Bowl-type game time (6:30 p.m. on the East Coast) to enable the whole world to watch from start to finish. And Selig is pushing for that, as well.

And the October schedule needs to be tightened to dodge those arctic weather fronts, keep teams in a more normal baseball rhythm and build toward a smoother World Series crescendo. Selig says his sport is working on all that, too, by the way.

We'd also love to see baseball do a better job of promoting an Octoberfest pool culture that resembles all the March Madness college basketball pools -- and an October fantasy-baseball culture that would ratchet up interest for the casual fan.

Some of those ideas, obviously, have no connection whatsoever with how the NFL runs the Super Bowl. But that's part of the moral of this story. Baseball has its own charms and its own character -- and that's fine, too.

"You don't have to build another Super Bowl to say you're successful," Swangard said. "You just have to create something of relevance outside the tradition of mainstream fans. And that's to turn this into a cultural event that everyone watches."

What would be ideal, he said, is to find a day of the week to kick off the World Series that feels like a baseball kind of day -- just as the way winter Sundays feel like pro football's day. Great plan -- but how?

"What baseball should really do is create an eighth day [of the week]," Paul Swangard said, laughing. "I'm not sure how. But maybe if [Barack] Obama is as good as he says he is, he can invent an eighth day."

Rumbles in the jungle

• Pet Peave Dept.: Jake Peavy to the Cubs? Oh, it may seem as if the arrows are all pointing in that direction again. But not so fast.

Jake Peavy
Peavy

Are the Cubs still interested? Of course. Have they laid groundwork to make a potential deal for Peavy by creating payroll space with the exits of Mark DeRosa and Jason Marquis, and by adding pitching-prospect inventory with the trade of Felix Pie? Absolutely.

But does that mean this deal can get revived sometime soon? Not necessarily, because there are still major ownership issues. And no matter how much the folks at MLB might want to get the Cubs' sale approved by Opening Day, the timetable isn't solely in its hands.

"I don't think we're anywhere near as close to resolving the ownership situation as it looks," said one baseball man with knowledge of those machinations. "You have to remember [the seller, the Tribune Company] is in bankruptcy court. So if somebody comes along and says, 'We offered more money,' the court can say, 'You have to take the most money.' So there's no way of saying right now whether this gets resolved in two to three months or six to eight months."

So why does that matter? Because the Cubs can't add a $63 million contract without ownership approval. And there's still no assurance they'll have an owner before Opening Day. So how can they move forward on a deal?

Right now, they can't even get a tentative go-ahead from prospective owner Thomas Ricketts because he's still, technically, negotiating. And even after those negotiations are completed, the court still has to sign off.

That means the earliest those Peavy talks could be revived is probably the middle of spring training -- but possibly much later. So even if the baseball pieces now fit, the odds of this trade's getting finished before Opening Day are still longer than they appear.

• Ryan's Hope Dept.: Has there ever been a more riveting arbitration case than Ryan Howard's?

Correct answer: Heck, no.

Here's why:

• No position player in the history of arbitration has ever come out of this process with $18 million -- which is the payday Howard seeks.

Ryan Howard
Howard

• Then again, no position player has ever gone through arbitration and received $14 million -- the amount the Phillies offered -- either.

• So how large is an $18 million salary request by a player who is in only his second year of arbitration eligibility? It's nearly double the previous record for a hitter in his second year. The old record was $10.5 million, by Derek Jeter in 2000. (Jeter eventually settled at the midpoint -- of $10 million.)

• And remember this: Howard has just three-plus years of big league service time. He's looking for a salary well beyond what any player with five years of service time has gotten. Jeter filed at $18.5 million as a five-plus-year player but wound up earning $11 million in the first year of his 10-year, $189 million contract.

So what does all this mean? It means this is just about an impossible case to handicap, because there are no comparable players for the arbitrators to use for reference.

Ultimately, then, this case will come down to the size of the raise this man is seeking -- and whether Howard and his agent, Casey Close, can justify it.

The Phillies are getting good reviews for offering a $4 million raise to a player who was already in historic salary territory. And remember, their $14 million offer would be a record for any arb-eligible hitter.

On the other hand, the Phillies did file slightly under the $14.25 million figure the Yankees submitted in Jeter's final arbitration year (before settling). And Howard has been linked in the past with Miguel Cabrera, who will make $15 million this year (in what would have been his third arbitration season).

So although the Phillies' case looks more winnable than it did last year, one thing we've come to learn about arbitration is: You never know. Ever.

• More Ryan-osity: Meanwhile, word out of Missouri is that Howard has devoted a sizable percentage of his winter workouts to addressing his defensive issues.

One friend who spoke with him says Howard knows he needs to be a "more complete player." So his three areas of concentration this offseason have been (1) defense, (2) footwork around first base and (3) conditioning.

Once upon a time, when he was in the International League, Howard was voted by the managers -- in a Baseball America poll -- as the league's best defensive first baseman. Last season, though, he was one error away from becoming the second first baseman in the past 25 years to commit 20 errors in a season. (The other: Pittsburgh's Kevin Young, in 1999.)

So if Howard wants to finish his career as a first baseman, he clearly recognizes it's time to fix his defensive regression.

Zack Greinke
Greinke

• New Royalty Dept.: You'd have to ride the time machine all the way back to 2003 (and Mike Sweeney) to find the last time the Royals were able to sign a player as significant as Zack Greinke to an extension that bought out at least one free-agent year.

So Greinke's four-year, $38 million deal this week sent an important message to the living humans who still care about the Royals -- that GM Dayton Moore thinks he's building something here, that ownership will finance it and that their best players are starting to believe in it.

But there may have been another element at work. Soren Petro, of Sports Radio 810 in Kansas City, asked Moore on Tuesday about rumblings that Greinke nearly left his longtime agent, John Courtright of SFX, for Scott Boras. Moore said he didn't know anything about those reports.

However, one source who knows both Moore and Greinke tells Rumblings he doesn't believe that's the case.

Greinke had "entertained" the notion of hiring Boras, the source said, because Boras had "pursued him strongly. … [and] had this deal not gotten done long-term, I think that [switch] was a definite possibility. But not anymore. Zack is very comfortable with the deal he got."

Meanwhile, an official of one team says clubs were already beginning to gear up for a Greinke trade if this deal had fallen apart. The Royals, he said, had sent signals that if they couldn't get Greinke signed, they might begin listening to offers as soon as the trading deadline (if they were out of contention) and almost certainly next winter. But that's all moot now.

• Spring Fever Dept.: One of our favorite offseason games is: Pick the signing date. And when we played that game this week with a couple of prominent unsigned Boras clients, we got our first mention of a month not usually associated with major free-agent signings:

March.

More and more people are starting to think a March signing date is now a real possibility for both Pudge Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez.

"Mark my words," one NL executive said. "Pudge is going to use the World Baseball Classic as a chance to showcase where he is. And then he'll try to hook on after that's over and he's shown he can play."

Meanwhile, even though Boras said this week he expects Ramirez to sign by mid-February, you should never forget that Manny has always been about as big a fan of spring training as he is of haircuts. So why would it shock anyone if he doesn't sign until March?

"If Manny could walk in and get maybe the last week or 10 days of spring training, that would be perfect for him," an AL exec said. "That's about all he's ever been interested in anyway."

The one problem with that strategy in Manny's case, of course, is this: He still wants four or five years at $25 million a year. And what team still has $100 million sitting around in the old checking account in March -- or even has $25 million for one year, for that matter?

Adam Dunn
Dunn

• Dunn Deal Dept.: OK, here's another hang-up if Manny decides to stall until spring training. An official of one team that has had contact with Adam Dunn's agents says Dunn is "definitely" waiting to see what happens with Ramirez because the Dodgers are his preferred destination.

That's not a good development for the Nationals, who have made no secret of their interest in Dunn. But it's becoming increasingly clear they aren't his No. 1 choice.

"If he wanted to be in Washington, he'd already be there," the same official said.

The Nationals remain Dunn's most aggressive suitor. And the Orioles are still believed to have some back-burner interest. But the Braves have backed off after concluding Dunn didn't fit with the other pieces of their lineup. So with no other contenders in the hunt, the big question is:

Dunn may want to be a Dodger, but how interested are the Dodgers in him? On that front, the Dodgers have been hard to read.

Indications are they've made regular contact with Dunn's agent, Greg Genske. But they've never gone beyond an expression of interest that would depend on how other pieces (i.e., the Manny piece) fit together.

For now, the Dodgers appear focused on pitching. But at some point, after they finish off the seemingly inevitable signing of Randy Wolf, it's very possible they'll make one final run at Ramirez and then turn their attention to seeing whether they can get Dunn signed to a short-term deal.

• Manny's World: As long as we're on the subject of Manny, Boras has described the action on his highest-profile client as "heating up" this week. But with whom, exactly?

A source familiar with the Mets' thinking says a Manny signing is "not going to happen." The Yankees have made it clear they're totally out of Manny's world. A baseball man familiar with the Angels' plans reports their decision to pass on Manny is still "etched in stone." The Giants continue to say they're only interested under "certain conditions" -- meaning a very short-term deal. And the Dodgers are no closer to signing this guy than they were when they made their two-year, $45 million offer -- on Election Day.

So where's the heat? Just asking.

• Home For The Hollidays: One of America's most brilliant baseball minds, longtime Bay Area baseball writer Jeff Fletcher, recently embarked on a Matt Holliday research project. And what did he conclude? That Holliday's home-road splits as a Rockie (.345 AVG/.645 SLG/1.068 OPS in Denver, .280/.455/.803 road) don't tell the whole story.

Matt Holliday
Holliday

You can check out the whole project here. But in essence, Fletcher decided to examine the premise that Rockies hitters take a while to adjust on the road to the better breaking stuff they see at sea level. And when he looked at Holliday's road numbers, he found they got progressively better with every game away from Denver:

His career road stats:

First two games of a trip: .277 BA/.472 SLG
Third game: .281/.446
Fourth game: .281/.458
Fifth game: .291/.483
Sixth game: .305/.522
Seventh game: .321/.567
Eighth game: .356/.683

"I agree with that conclusion," one NL scout said. "Darryl Kile taught baseball a huge lesson. He had as good a breaking ball as anyone in the game. But in Denver, occasionally he'd snap off a good one, but when he didn't, it hung and it got whacked. Mike Hampton found out, too. His cutter didn't cut. So as scouts, we always accounted for that. When that team went on the road, we'd always say, 'Breaking-ball those guys to death.' So Matt Holliday, once he adjusts to sea level in Oakland, I think he'll be fine."

• Economics 101 Dept.: Buster Olney ran this chart from ESPN Research guru Mark Simon in his blog Wednesday, but it's worth another look at the breakdown in free-agent spending the past three offseasons:

Lots of people have pointed to those figures as examples of how the market has slowed down in a horrible economy. But several agents noticed something else about those numbers:

Last winter's spending breakdown doesn't look much different than this winter's, does it? But wait. Last winter was before the economy melted down. In fact, it preceded a season during which MLB raked in $6.6 billion in revenues, either the biggest or second-biggest take in history.

So nobody should mistake what has gone on during this slow-motion offseason. Yes, sir, the economic mess that affects all of us is real. And it has affected baseball, too. But these teams also figured out a year ago that playing the waiting game -- and hanging 100 unsigned players out to stir uncomfortably in late January -- also is great negotiating strategy.

• Quick Hits Dept.: In other news …

Alex Rodriguez
Rodriguez

• Hard as Joe Torre tries to spin his thoughts about Alex Rodriguez, we've heard from multiple sources that when A-Rod was a free agent last offseason, Torre advised the Dodgers not to touch him.

• The Phillies have tried relentlessly to deal roleless outfielder Geoff Jenkins for a right-handed-hitting outfielder in the same situation somewhere else but have had zero luck -- in part because Jenkins' backloaded contract pays him $6.75 million this season (plus a $1.25 million buyout of his 2010 option).

• The Phillies have zero interest in right-handed-hitting free agents Jay Payton and Emil Brown. Their No. 1 right-handed-hitting bench option these days is Nomar Garciaparra, but only as a part-timer at first, third and short.

• After trying to push Xavier Nady as the outfielder they'd most prefer to trade, the Yankees are telling teams they're softening to the idea of dealing Nick Swisher. The Braves head the list of clubs who prefer Swisher because of his versatility and because he's three years from free agency, not one.

• The Braves may bring Andruw Jones to camp as a favor. But every indication is that most of their baseball operation is as wary of Jones as the rest of the sport. "What does he do for that team?" one scout asked. "He can't come off the bench. He's regressed defensively. And he's a horrible hitter. Over the last 1½ seasons, he might have been the easiest out in the major leagues."

Five winter league stat lines you won't believe

• The artist formerly known as Jose Offerman (Licey, Dominican winter league): 35 plate appearances, 12 strikeouts, two hits (both doubles), nine walks, .077 AVG but a .314 OBP.

TRIVIA ANSWER

A-Rod (45 HRs, 127 RBIs), Vladimir Guerrero (33 HRs, 109 RBIs), Manny Ramirez (37 HRs, 116 RBIs) and David Ortiz (31 HRs, 102 RBIs) are the easy ones. Jim Thome (38 HRs, 101 RBIs), Carlos Delgado (36 HRs, 114 RBIs) and Lance Berkman (32 HRs, 105 RBIs) are the tough ones. And the tricky one is Albert Pujols, because he has played only from 2001 to 2008. But with 319 homers and 977 RBIs, he qualifies. (Actual average: 40 HRs, 122 RBIs. Average if you compute it for nine seasons: 35 HRs, 109 RBIs).

• Andruw Jones (Aguilas, Dominican winter league): 22 plate appearances, eight strikeouts, three hits, no extra-base hits, six walks, .188 AVG but a .409 OBP.

• The artist formerly known as Scott Erickson (Mexicali, Mexican winter league): Two starts, 9 1/3 innings pitched, 14 hits, nine runs but 10 strikeouts.

• Oft-injured Giants prospect Merkin Valdez (Escogido, Dominican winter league): Two action-packed appearances totaling one inning pitched, three hits, six walks and a 9.00 WHIP -- but, somehow or other, only one run. Oh, and all three outs were strikeouts.

• Rob Deer wannabe Brad Eldred (Zulia, Venezuelan winter league): 17 strikeouts, six hits, one solo homer in 35 plate appearances.

Headliner of the week

Finally, this just in, from the Jan. 8 edition of the always-brilliant parody site/newspaper, The Onion:

Yankees Boost Payroll By Signing A-Rod Again

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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