In almost all American professional sports, teams compete against each other with rosters of the same size. But not baseball. Tomorrow, with one month to go in the regular season, baseball will change its rules. It happens every September 1, just as the play-off races are getting interesting. For the first five months of the season, all teams play with 25 players on their active rosters. If a player is injured and placed on the disabled list, another player takes his place. The rules are the same for everyone.
Then things change in September, when teams are allowed to increase their roster from 25 players to as many as 40 by calling up players from the minor leagues. Some teams add all 15 players; others add only a few. The idea is for teams to promote prospects and introduce them to the major leagues. For a month, young players experience what it is like to be in the big leagues: the competition, the first class travel and top-notch facilities.
It also gives teams a chance to evaluate their young players. It is one thing to hit .300 at Triple A and quite another to do it at the big-league level. Teams out of contention sometimes use the opportunity to get a head start on the following season by giving playing time to promising youngsters while veterans sit. But teams in contention for the post-season promote players, too. The additional bodies provide depth. Instead of carrying two catchers, for example, teams have the luxury of three or four.
That gives managers the ability to pinch-hit, pinch-run and substitute more freely. And that is where things get tricky. Sometime this week, one team with, say, 28 players will play a team carrying 33. Those five extra players could mean the difference between a win and a loss, and thus, the difference between making the post-season and being locked out. The lack of uniformity and consistency bothers some.
"No other sport allows this," said one executive who asked not to be named. "No other sport changes the basic rules in the middle of a season. I'm not sure why we do. I wish we didn't." Some have proposed a change so that teams could have more eligible players in September, but only have 25 active at once. That would provide both the desired flexibility as well as fairness for everyone. Until then, an uneven playing field - or at the least, uneven rosters - will continue to exist.