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MLB and its 30 teams today announced the master schedule for the '11 season, officially confirming much-discussed plans to begin and end the season earlier in an attempt to avoid November playoff games. The season will begin with five games on Thursday, March 31, eschewing the traditional league start of one game on a Sunday evening on ESPN and a full slate of games the following day. One of those five games on March 31 -- to be hosted by the Cardinals, Nationals, Reds, Royals and Yankees -- could be moved to a primetime TV window on Wednesday, March 30. The '11 regular season will then conclude on Wednesday, Sept. 28, again veering away from the typical Sunday conclusion. The changes came in large part from Commissioner Bud Selig's Special Committee for On-Field Matters, which earlier this year also announced a one-day condensing of each LCS. Highlights in the '11 schedule include the Cubs' first trip to Fenway Park since the '18 World Series and the July 12 All-Star Game in Phoenix. There will be no new MLB ballpark openings next year for the first time since '07. MLB and the MLBPA are still discussing a potential overseas opening to the season with a two-game series in Taiwan in late March involving the Giants and D'Backs (Eric Fisher, SportsBusiness Journal).
MOVING TO MIDWEEK: USA TODAY's Bob Nightengale notes "only four seasons have begun earlier, and it will mark the first time since 1976 that opening day will be on a Thursday." MLB Senior VP/Scheduling & Club Relations Katy Feeney said that teams were "given the option of starting on Thursday or Friday," and "five teams opted to start a day earlier, leaving an open-day on Friday in case there's a postponement." The World Series is "scheduled to begin on Wednesday, Oct. 19, a week earlier than the last two years, with Game 7 on Oct. 27." Tigers manager Jim Leyland, a member of Selig's committee, said, "The sooner we play the postseason -- with football going on and the weather -- the better we'll be. It's rough playing in November with the weather being so cold." A's GM Billy Beane: "You're certainly going to have regular-season games in April that will be changed or affected by the weather. But given the choice, you'd rather lose games then than in the postseason" (USA TODAY, 9/15). In Cincinnati, John Fay notes the Reds have traditionally hosted one of the first games played the opening Monday afternoon of the season, and festivities around the game include the Opening Day Findlay Market Parade. Reds COO Phil Castellini said of the '11 schedule, "This is a year that shifted that paradigm. We were focused on retaining the traditions we have. That includes the Reds having Opening Day at home. That continues to be of importance." Fay notes the opener "will be a day game" (CINCINNATI ENQUIRER, 9/15).
A REAL LONG ROAD TRIP: The D'Backs are "scheduled to start the year on the road, first in Colorado (April 1-3) and then Chicago (April 4-6)," but that "could change if approval is met on the Taiwan series, which would see the Diamondbacks and Giants play a two-game series, likely in mid-March." MLBPA Exec Dir Michael Weiner said of discussions over the Taiwan series, "There has been progress, but it hasn't been settled yet" (ARIZONA REPUBLIC, 9/15). MLB Giants VP/Baseball Operations Bobby Evans said of the Taiwan games and playing internationally, "You have to be team players with the game. ... There's going to be a time where we are going to get a chance to do it, and maybe that's as early as next year. Either way it's good for baseball and we have to take that into account too" ("Chronicle Live," Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, 9/14).
The move by players on several teams to show solidarity by "hoisting an index finger in the air" prior to Week One kickoffs "wasn't received well everywhere," including boos from fans in Houston and St. Louis, but Vikings G Steve Hutchinson said he did not know "what could be misconstrued as being any kind of negativity toward the fans with that," according to Zulgad & Scoggins of the Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE. Hutchinson, who is the team's player rep, said, "I don't know if they just misunderstood what that was supposed to mean. Maybe they thought that was a different finger being stuck up there. I don't know. But from a players' standpoint, I know our way of thinking in the game on Thursday night was just to show everyone who cares to put their two cents in about it that we are one as a players' association." He added, "I don't think the majority of the fan base really understands how serious it is yet. They probably would just think, 'They'll get it ironed [out].' Hopefully, that's what we feel as well. But the reality of it is there has been no real try of negotiation at the table, so we have to assume that they are aiming for a lockout" (Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE, 9/15). NATIONAL FOOTBALL POST's Andrew Brandt wrote the gesture of solidarity is "another strategic negotiating play in the ongoing dormant collective bargaining negotiations with the NFL." The gesture itself is "relatively innocuous," but the organizers "knew it would receive national attention to the union's mantra that they are united." The NFLPA, "leaning heavily on its communications counsel," is following a "basic principle of publicity: perception can become reality." The union is "seeking the hearts and minds of its fan base, as well as the media" (NATIONALFOOTBALLPOST.com, 9/14).
WHAT FANS WANT: In California, Jim Carlisle wrote under the header, "Leave Us Out Of Your Solidarity Displays." Carlisle: "By coming onto the field before the game and raising their index fingers, the players are saying they're all in this together, no matter what. Unfortunately, as fans, so are we. The players, in this public display, are dragging us right along with them into this whole unpleasant business, whether we want to go or not. I don't know about you, but I don't want to go" (VENTURA COUNTY STAR, 9/13). ESPN.com's Jemele Hill wrote, "I thought we liked it when athletes showed they believed in something that wasn't superficial. ... But I forgot the fine print. We want athletes to have a voice only when they utter something we all agree with; that makes us comfortable." ESPN.com's Jeff MacGregor wrote, "Sympathy of any kind is going to be a tough sell when you're talking about a union that protects the bargaining rights of 'millionaires.' ... Selling this to the public, to the fans, has to be a delicate thing. That's why the index finger is a bad idea. Looks too much like 'We're No. 1!' So it looks like a sports cliché built on brag and ego" (ESPN.com, 9/14).
READING THE TEA LEAVES: Bears President & CEO Ted Phillips said there are a "lot of issues" involved with a possible 18-game regular schedule. Phillips: "The positive is that it would probably generate more revenue in which to be able to help get a new collective bargaining agreement. That's probably the overriding reason. There are obviously concerns on the football side of things … (but) I think the league is doing a good job of looking hard at every one of those and not minimizing any one. If I was a betting man I'd say that as part of a new collective bargaining agreement we'll see 18 regular-season games and two pre-season games" (CHICAGOBUSINESS.com, 9/15). FoxSports.com's Mark Kriegel said if the season goes to 18 games, "I just hope that the NFLPA really represents these guys and gets them bigger rosters and a lot more money because that's what they deserve. These players are systematically orthopedically ruined" ("Jim Rome Is Burning," ESPN, 9/14).