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Major League Baseball's Shorter Season May Have Big Effects

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Do you remember this sound?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: That's down the right field line into the corner. This ball is gone for a home run. Nationals...

GREENE: So as of today, Major League Baseball is back. Only this year, teams are going to play just 60 regular season games, well short of the usual 162. Well, commentator Mike Pesca is happy to have baseball return. He argues that a shortened schedule will affect this game more than any other sport.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: America has had brief presidencies - William Henry Harrison, brief wars - in and out of Grenada in four days. But we've never had a brief baseball season. Yes, hemmed in by a pandemic, all sports are truncating their seasons. But baseball is different - not better, not superior. But it is the one sport where you have to play a lot of it to see what it really means. The normal NBA and NHL seasons are 82 games long plus up to 28 postseason games per team, not because they have to be but because owners want them to be. They make more money that way. But really, in those sports, a season determined by 40 or 50 games wouldn't be less valid. But even a college baseball season lasts 70 games with playoffs. There's no full-time major international baseball league that plays less than a 114-game schedule.

Baseball exists on a different temporal plane than the other sports because other sports are repeated iterations of the same team going into battle. But in baseball, the most important player in the game, the starting pitcher, only takes the field once every five contests. Different pitchers make for different teams. Different teams mean you need to run the experiment more times to get the best sense of who really is the best.

Last year, the New York Yankees won 103 games, the mark of a great team. But they were underdogs 34 times because of their pitching. For 34 particular games, they weren't expected to be as good as their opponents' pitching. The NFL's New England Patriots were never an underdog last season because their most important player, Tom Brady, was under center every game. The Patriots weren't a better football team than the Yankees were a baseball team. It's just that there is less variance in a sport that doesn't task a different player with determining the team's fate every game.

Now, you'll hear a nostalgic wax on about the glory of baseball not having a clock, which allows for the game to unfurl like a gentle wave over the course of a season. That is an overly romantic attitude towards baseball. Cricket is the slowest game around - sorry, cricket supporters - but a full season of 40 cricket matches is fine for determining a true champion because bowlers don't need four days of rest between games. That baseball games take a long time is a flaw. That a baseball season takes a while is a necessity. Baseball at 60 games won't be a CliffsNotes version of a great book. It'll be more like a loose film adaptation. But that's all right because that's the best we can do.

And not only is 60 games, should they all take place, better than nothing, it's actually a good thing. It's baseball. The bases are 90 feet apart. The outs are three each inning per team. The umpire is always wrong, though this year managers must argue that point at a distance. If a champion is to be named, it will be different from every other year, and the champion of baseball will be a bit more random than the champions of all the other sports. But that's still far superior to having no champion at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRONTIDE'S "KITH AND KIN")

GREENE: Commentator Mike Pesca. He's the host of Slate's daily podcast "The Gist." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.