We are not the first person to say this. But the NBA’s new In-Season Tournament serves as a reminder: Major League Baseball could — and should — pay homage to English soccer’s FA Cup much better than this manufactured event Adam Silver is rolling out.
For those who don’t know: The FA Cup is a sprawling knockout tournament that encompasses almost the entire English soccer pyramid, from the Premier League to the small semi-professional teams in the 10th division. The event starts with the small guys and introduces the bigger teams as it progresses, with matchups set by random draw.
MLB is uniquely suited to establish such a tournament stateside. So we are going to call it the Nation Series. And we are going to assume the league office and the MLBPA will figure out the scheduling logistics given the tournament’s immense potential to generate excitement and, most importantly, a lot of money. With that in mind, here is our pitch:
A 198-team pool. Thirty big league teams and 120 minor league affiliates (Single-A, High-A, Double-A, Triple-A) are a given to participate. But to truly capture the spirit of the FA Cup, we are also inviting MLB’s four independent partner leagues (45 teams currently). And the name, image and likeness revolution in college sports opens the door for the previous year’s NCAA Division-1, -2 and -3 champions to be invited as well. So 198 teams total.
The structure. The tournament starts at the tail end of spring training. Only the college, independent and minor league teams play in the first three rounds (although some will luck out with the draw and not enter until the fourth round). The 168 non-MLB teams are whittled down to 96 entering the fourth round. Twenty-eight big league clubs are then added to the field. The reigning pennant winners then enter in the fifth round, which is the round of 64.
Tentpole holidays. The Round of 64 — when every team has formally entered the tournament — will be held on Memorial Day each year. The Round of Eight will be played on the Fourth of July. And the Final Four and championship game will be played back-to-back over Labor Day weekend. Those are the only games played at a neutral site.
The schedule. The MLB teams are the only ones where things will be tricky. Our two cents: Start the regular season a bit early and end it a a bit later. Have a few Mondays and Thursday designated as tournament. Hell, get crazy and have scheduled doubleheaders to free up a few more days off. Another possibility: Regular season games could double as tournament games in the middle rounds if pairings and schedules mesh.
Roster rules. If you are on a team when the game is played, you can play. If Aaron Judge is on a rehab assignment when the Somerset Patriots play an early-round game, he gets to play. And he can then play for the Yankees a few rounds later.
The prize. The winning team gets a sparkling trophy — trust us, George Costanza will not be dragging it across a parking lot — and splits a purse worth millions. And if a non-MLB team wins the tournament? They earn the right to host a future MLB All-Star Game in their building.
Imagine the possibilities. Because they are endless. A matchup between the Astros and LSU, World Series winner against College World Series winner. A Cinderella run by an indy club like the Long Island Ducks. A Triple-A team beating its big league affiliate. The Dodgers returning to Brooklyn to play the Cyclones. The Mets losing to the Durham Bulls. What else are we missing?