Coolican: Imagining a midseason tournament for baseball
Liam Coolican | Friday, February 3, 2023
Imagine yourself in any mid-size minor league baseball town: Montgomery, Toledo, Frisco or South Bend. Now imagine the scene if an MLB team like the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers rolled into town for a playoff game. This could be a reality if MLB ever adopts a mid-season tournament similar to the English FA Cup.
The hugely popular tournament matches up teams from the giants of the Premier League all the way down to the ninth division. Each year, some of England’s biggest clubs travel to small stadiums throughout the country, to face off against teams whose players make less in a year than the Premier League’s stars do in a week. Even though a top-flight team always wins — the last time a team from a lower division won the Cup was 1980 – there have been some memorable upsets over the years.
Recently, there has been talk of implementing a similar mid-season tournament in North American sports, most notably in the NBA. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charnia, the format would involve cup games throughout November with eight teams advancing to a single-elimination final.
It certainly is an intriguing idea. As a fan of the basement-dwelling Detroit Pistons, I’ll readily admit that I haven’t watched a full game in weeks. It would give fans something to cheer for amidst an otherwise lost season. Yet I can’t help but feel as if it’s an empty trophy. The FA Cup is special because it matches up teams that would never otherwise play each other.
However, there is one sport that would be a perfect fit for a midseason tournament: Major League Baseball. Minor league baseball has been in trouble recently, and MLB teams have faced declining attendance for years. No one change can fix these problems that are plaguing the game. But a midseason tournament could go a long way toward rejuvenating interest in the sport especially among younger fans who are increasingly turning to basketball and football.
While there are many different formats the league could experiment with, the ideal scenario would likely include teams at each of the five levels of affiliated baseball, from Single-A to the MLB. With roughly 30 teams at each level, it could feature seven best-of-three rounds.
Much like the FA Cup, there is something remarkably appealing – for most fans – about the Yankees potentially being eliminated by a Double-A squad. As we’ve seen in the playoffs, anything can happen in a best-of-three series. While the MLB teams would more than likely dominate the competition, there would also be some intriguing storylines. How many Minor League batters Jacob deGrom could strike out? How far Aaron Judge could hit a ball against a Single-A pitcher?
This would certainly attract fans far and wide to minor league baseball stadiums, as well as give players a much-needed change of pace from an otherwise grueling season. The 162-game season can become a slog in July and August. Having meaningful games in the middle of the season would be beneficial for fans and players alike. It would also give teams a chance to evaluate their top prospects against Major League talent.
There are certain kinks to work out. Unlike English soccer, minor league baseball teams are affiliated with an MLB team. As a result, teams could manipulate matchups easily by moving top prospects up or down strategically before big games. Another is providing an appropriate incentive structure for teams and players who are only looking to win a World Series Trophy. But these problems aren’t insurmountable. The benefits of this format could be huge for the sport.