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We started doing baseball's schedules in 1981, for the 1982 season," says Henry Stephenson. He stops and thinks a second, then looks at his wife, Holly. "Is that right? Let's see, we did the NBA schedules for...seven years? Until about '84, right?" Now thoroughly perplexed, Henry finally asks, "What year is this?" Holly smiles. "It gets hard to remember," she says. "We're now working on next year's baseball schedule so this year already seems like last year."
The Stephensons certainly don't sound like schedule makers. In fact, they don't sound as if they could remember next week's dentist appointment. Nevertheless, for 10 seasons Henry and Holly have, both by computer and the seat of their pants, hammered out 162-game schedules for the 26 major league baseball teams, a permutation nightmare that makes the most powerful mainframe computer gag on its bytes.
Planning a baseball season is roughly equivalent to sitting down to schedule more than 2,000 client meetings over the next six months. Not only do you have to work out your own travel and home office plans, you have to accommodate the scheduling requests of every client, as well as observe all holidays, company regulations and union rules. And every now and then, you have to clear out of the office for a tractor-pull or the Grateful Dead.
Dick Wagner, a former major league general manager and now a special assistant in the American League office, says, "It takes a great deal of patience to be a schedule maker. You have to listen to all the people that don't care for a schedule and explain why the schedule is that way. And there are so many requests that it can get to be a quagmire. The Stephensons have a nerve-racking job."
Which is made no easier by some of the comments directed at the couple. Detroit utility man Dave Bergman once said of a Stephenson-designed major league schedule that had the Tigers hopping all over the country during one stretch: "The guys who made up this schedule must have been in a room with a bottle of Wild Turkey and 40 straws."
Such second-guessing demands a certain distancing on the part of the schedule makers, which is fine with the Stephen-sons. Henry, 50, and Holly, 44, work out of a small office near their home in a quiet neighborhood of Staten Island, N.Y. The house is a 15-minute ferry ride from Manhattan and the offices of Major League Baseball, where they rarely venture.
Henry earned a master's degree in architecture and urban design at Columbia in 1968. Holly minored in math as an undergraduate at Cornell and was working in the student records division at Columbia when she met Henry. Five years later, while they were both working for the New York City Planning Commission, the Stephensons became friendly with George Faust, whose father, also George, was then the NBA's director of broadcasting and operations. The younger Faust told the Stephensons that the NBA was looking to computerize its schedule, a task at which five software firms had failed. Henry and Holly asked to take a crack at it. Their seven-year stint as the league's schedule makers followed.
"We first started out to develop a computer program that would do the whole schedule, but we found out that we could do about 85 percent of it by computer and then we had to hand-finish it," says Holly.
The Stephensons' relationship with the NBA began in 1978. In 1981 they also took on the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) as a client and, in 1983, the North American Soccer League. Meanwhile, someone in the baseball office spotted an article about them in Computerworld magazine and the couple was recruited to put together the major league calendar. "We found that baseball has much more stringent requirements than other sports," says Henry. "In other sports, you can weave the odd man in or out. You can't do that in baseball." The demands of baseball make it just as well that in 1985, the NBA decided to do its own scheduling. That same year the NASL folded, but the Stephensons continue to schedule the Major Soccer League, as the MISL now styles itself.
Designing a tight pattern for baseball's regular season—2,106 games in a maximum of 183 days—requires the talents of a mathematician, a meteorologist, a historian and a family counselor. "You don't start a schedule at the beginning of a season," says Holly. "And you don't start out with one team." Says Henry, "You get the computer to do a little bit, then you do a little, then it does a little and so on." Among the threads that must be woven together to produce a workable baseball schedule are the following: