It's May, and for sports fans in Detroit and Tampa, in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, on Chicago's North Side, that means one thing: the end of baseball season. Sure, teams in those towns will continue playing through September. But for what? To showcase their young talent to interested parties ("That's R-O-L-E-N, Mr. Steinbrenner")? To provide bleacher bums an excuse to skip work and soak up sun and suds? To feed the pathology of Rotisserie geeks? To play the spoiler?
World Series hopes may be all but dead for half the clubs in the majors, but what if those teams still had something meaningful—an alternative championship—to play for? Here's where baseball might take a lesson from overseas: European soccer federations long ago learned that two championships are better than one. While teams contend for regular-season titles in their respective divisions, they simultaneously engage in a national cup tournament involving clubs from the top divisions down to amateur levels. That makes for some terrific David versus Goliath stories. This year a fourth-division team from Calais made up of teachers, dock workers and office clerks captivated France by advancing to the final of the French Cup, along the way defeating first-division clubs Racing Strasbourg and Bordeaux.
Here's a proposal for baseball: Create a blind-draw 32-team tournament to start on July 4, among the 30 big league clubs, the College World Series winner and the minor league team with the best record to that point. Each two-game series would be home-and-home, with teams advancing to the next round on aggregate runs. Schedule the championship game for Labor Day at Wrigley Field. Cut the major league season to 154 games to accommodate the added work. Think the games won't matter to the big league teams? Make them count in the standings. Secure some corporate sponsor to attach its name and to pony up prize money to further bolster interest. Want to get really daring? Give the winner a berth in the playoffs if it doesn't otherwise qualify.
We've even got a name for our tournament. Dub it the Ernie Banks Cup, in honor of the Hall of Famer who played 19 seasons without a whiff of the World Series and who never balked at playing two.