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:
•Basic-agreement terms. The Major League Players Association has negotiated a number of contract provisions that affect scheduling. Among them: 1) No team can play for more than 20 consecutive days, and, conversely, no team can have more than two days off in a seven-day period; 2) a team traveling from the Pacific to the eastern time zone must have an off-day before the first game in the East; 3) a day game can't follow a night game unless the games are played within a 90-minute flight of each other.
The cross-country travel rule particularly affects Cincinnati and Atlanta. Geographically, the Reds and the Braves are eastern-time-zone teams, but they're National League West teams. The Chicago Cubs are a scheduling headache because of the day-game-following-a-night-game rule. Until 1988 Wrigley Field didn't have lights, and even now the Cubs play only 16 home night games.
•Special requirements. The Boston Red Sox demand a home game on Patriot's Day (the third Monday in April). The Baltimore Orioles want to be on the road for Preakness weekend in May. The Minnesota Twins want to be away on the second weekend of May, when walleye season opens. Toronto, Montreal and Seattle (which has many Canadian fans) want to be home on July 1, Canada Day, but on the road on July 4. Everyone wants to be on the road on Mother's Day, but everyone also wants to be at home on Father's Day.
Some of these needs are difficult to meet. "Because Boston wants to start at 11:05 in the morning on Patriot's Day, you have to keep the visiting team that was there on the weekend over for another day," says Holly. "You can't bring in another team because they wouldn't be able to get there that early on Monday. So you've got a four-game series in April, which might pull a game out of August [because of low attendance and unpredictable weather, baseball likes to load up on shorter series in April]. Sometimes getting in just one game can be very tricky."
•Weather. Henry and Holly learned a lesson the hard way in 1982. For Opening Day, they drove to Baltimore to see the first game of the first baseball season they had scheduled. On their drive back to Staten Island, the blizzard of '82 hit. Nearly a week's worth of games in the Northeast and Midwest was wiped out by the worst April snow in a century—including six openers. Embarrassingly, two domed-stadium teams, Minnesota and Seattle, were playing each other, and in balmy California, the Angels faced the A's. Sportswriters were quick to point out these scheduling gaffes. "We became a little sensitive," Henry says.
The course of a baseball schedule, like that of a game, is never over till it's over. The end of the '82 season saw three division races go down to the final weekend, with two of them being decided with the teams involved playing each other. "We got blamed for the weather at the beginning of the year, but we got credit for the great finish," says Henry. "Neither of which we deserved."
•Balancing, swinging and keeping peace at home. In '88 the Milwaukee Brewers were making a charge at the American League East title when they ran into the September schedule. The Brewers were that year's designated "swing team," which meant that they finished the season with a string of 22 games against West opponents, thus giving Milwaukee no head-to-head opportunities to gain ground on its division rivals. The Brewers finished third in the East, two games back.
Again, there were complaints about the schedule makers. The swing team, however, isn't the Stephensons' invention, but a limitation forced on the schedule makers by the American League's structure. When you divide the league's 14 teams in half, you get an odd number, which means that one team in each division is always playing outside its division. The result is that American League teams end up playing more games against opponents in the other division (84) than in their own division (78), and in a semantic quirk that anomaly is called a "balanced schedule."
The American League's structure forces one team, the swing team, to close the season playing only teams outside its division. It is a problem even the Stephensons haven't solved. "It's very easy to say you don't have to have such a long stretch of nondivision play, but you can't make a schedule without it," says the American League's Wagner. "It doesn't work. We've tried a lot of things." (Toronto is the swing team this season.)
"There are also four 'conflict cities' that have two teams: New York, Chicago, San Francisco-Oakland and Los Angeles-Anaheim," says Holly. "When one team in one of those cities is home, you try to have the other team on the road. That means that you're working with one 14-team balanced schedule and one 12-team unbalanced schedule, and they have to be coordinated in those four cities."
•The Pope, Billy Graham and one-night stands. Even the Stephensons' best-laid plans are prey to the singular events that can upset the schedule-making process. In September 1987, Pope John Paul II's American tour arrived in Chavez Ravine, smack in the middle of a seven-game Dodger home stand. An unwanted doubleheader was improvised.
"We also had Billy Graham take over a stadium for a day in Baltimore," says Henry. "It seems simple enough because these things are just single events. But if they fall in the wrong spot in the schedule, it can be very disruptive."
Consider this disruption. Sometime during 1982, after the Stephensons had turned in their working draft for the '83 season, the A's became upset with what they thought was an inequity in the proposed calendar, which had them on the road during three major holidays: Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day. At first it looked as if an easy fix could be made since the Texas Rangers were slated to be at home for all three of those holidays and their July 4 date was with the A's. The Rangers agreed to switch that game to Oakland, but only after being promised a July 4 home game the following year.
Unfortunately, the San Francisco Giants (remember conflict cities?) were already scheduled to be in the Bay Area on July 4, playing the San Diego Padres. Since the Giants also had home games for Memorial Day and Labor Day, they were asked to move their July 4 series to San Diego. Which was fine—except that a move would upset the balance of home-and-away series between the Giants and the Padres. So the San Francisco-San Diego season-opening series was moved to Candlestick. Following so far?
Swell, but you aren't done. It seems the A's were also down to have an opening series at home that year, bringing up another conflict-cities situation. So Oakland's opening game was moved up one day, a compromise that at least gave the Giants and the A's different opening days. But that put the A's Opening Day on the same day as Cincinnati's and Baltimore's. A proposal had to be made to the major league owners to ignore the exclusive ceremonial Opening Day tradition that gives the date to the Reds and Orioles. After much grumbling and groaning, the proposal was adopted.
"There hasn't been a schedule in the history of baseball that has been worked out so perfectly that everyone is happy with it," says Henry. "But balance is the most important criteria. Everybody should get the same number of home and away series. Everybody should get a certain number of special requests. Everybody should get the pluses and minuses of a schedule."
Understandably, when the Stephensons finish scheduling a season, usually in June of the previous year, they're less than enthusiastic about immersing themselves in other kinds of details. "When we're not working, we need a break," says Henry. "We put all of our organizational skills into this, so when we are home...." Henry laughs softly. "Well, let's just say that I don't always get our bills paid on time. But they get paid."
Perhaps the schedule makers should train their skills on their own datebook?
This time, both Henry and Holly Stephenson laugh. "First," says Henry, "we have to find our datebook."