Big League Scheduling

As one ages, appreciation grows for what knowledgeable baseball fans call the inside game, the strategic decisions that managers and players make aftrer weighing a near infinity of variables: righty or lefty, the pitch count, number of men on base, strengh of the shortstop's arm, May or September. It's like solving an immense, ever-morphing math problem. Except in this case, thousands of fans are poised to heap abuse if during long division, someone forgets to carry the one.

Holly and Henry Stephenson, 54 and 58 respectively, know the feeling. For the last 17 years, their job has been to play the inside game involved in drawing up the season schedule for Major League Baseball. That involves two leagues, each with three divisions, for a total of thirty teams playing 162 games a year. All of whom are hard to please, and all of whom must be.

Not that difficult? Consider this: each team must play every other team in its league, but not the same number of games against all teams. To cultivate rivalries and insure competitive balance, each team must play more games against the teams in its division then teams out of it's division, and more of these intradivisional games must occur at the end of the season, when the playoff chase is on. Each team must play 13 weekend home series and 13 weekend road series. Some teams share their stadium with a professional football team and therefore cannot play on certain weekend days in the fall.

There's more. The Boston Red Sox must play a home game on Patriot's Day, the third Monday in April. Ever since the Blizzard of '82, which wiped out the first week of games on the East Coast, northern teams must begin the season on the road in warm weather cities. Cincinatti and Baltimore traditionally open at home. Then comes interleague play, and don't forget the new wrinkle this year: the season opener between the San Dieago Padres and Colorado Rockies, in Mexico.

"Even after you figure it out, there are special requests from clubs," Mr. Stephenson said. "Then, after that, there are special special requests. For example, every time the Pope comes to America, he goes to a baseball stadium. Don't even try to do the math."

The Stephensons, who have been married for 29 years and have two grown children, construct the schedule from late December to early July in a second-floor office of their Victorian home on a sleepy block in Ward Hill, S.I. One cannot help feeling a frission of excitement, standing in this quaint, uncluttered room, with it's gas jet fireplace and sublime view of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, realizing that here is where the logistics for the national pastime, a $2.5 billion industry, are put together.

The Stephensons understand this. But they are a little tired of dwelling on the contrast between their mom-and-pop operation and Major League Baseball. They say that when they started in the business by doing the National Basketball Association schedule of 1978, they were among the first to use a personal computer to speed up the process and make it more flexible. They simply used a modem to connect their puny computer to network space leased from Boeing Computer Services.

"It was half price after midnight and on weekends," Mr. Stephenson said, "which accounts for our work habits to this day."

When the Stephenson's got their first scheduling job with the NBA, Holly was a systems analyst for the Bed-Stuy Restoration Corporation, a nonprofit Brooklyn group, and Henry was an urban designer at the Department of City Planning. A friend had told them that the league wanted to computerize it's schedule. Fresh from learning about P.C.'s at the San Jose Computer Fair, the Stephensons applied. They ended up doing the NBA schedule until 1984.

The National and American Leagues, which individually contract with the Stephensons each year, first hired them in 1982 on the recommendation of the NBA. Though neither Stephenson has a formal background in computer science, they had already devised their own scheduling software. They have honed their programming skill so they can revamp the schedule dozens of times in a monthslong data exchange with the leagues and their teams.

Suppose, for example, George Steinbrenner asked for a home series pitting the Yankees against the Red Sox, their attendance-generating rival, during the 4th of July weekend. The Stehensons would plug that information into their computer to see the effect on the rest of the schedule. If agreeing to the request means that the Oakland A's must move a home series to a weekend when the football Raiders have plans for their mutual stadium, then tough luck, George. Unless the Stephensons switch a late May series with the White Sox and the Tigers to early July, while flipping the Angels and the Mariners with the Royals and the Rangers in mid-September. You get the idea.

One final test of the Stephenson schedule is the "game counter". If all the leagues rules and team requests have been correctly factored in, the game-counter printout will display a row of 81's on the right, each representing one half of the total games a team plays in a season, 162.

"When it comes out, that it s beautiful row of numbers," Mr. Stephenson said. But then, the leagues are likely to ask them to change it again.

During the six months that they are not working on a baseball schedule, the Stephensons, who describle themselves as casual fans of the game, create test schedules for the major leagues that analyze the effects of realignment or adding new teams. And they recently made up the Ivy League basketball schedule for the next 12 years. Mr. Stephenson is also the program director of the National Lighthouse Center and Museum on Staten Island.

Though Mr. Stephenson says baseball's schedule will be done entirely by computer someday, the couple's jobs seem secure for now. Derek Irwin, senior vice president of the American League, said Major League Baseball had invited computer scientists at Stanford, Georgia Tech, and MIT to devise a scheduling system superior to the Stephensons'. None have been able to.

"How the Stephensons' do it, God only knows," Mr. Irwin said. Neither the Stephensons nor baseball officials would say how much they are paid.

The Stephensons recalled the kinship they felt with one of the Americans taken hostage by the Iranians 20 years ago at the American Embassy in Teheran. The captive revealed upon release that he had kept his mind occupied by constantly working the American League schedule so as to gain an advantage for the Milwaukee Brewers, his team. (The Brewers switched last year to the National League. Don't get the Stephensons started on that one.)

"We felt like here was the only other person in the world who was doing what we do," Mr. Stephenson said. Not that the Stephensons try to give the Brewers, or any other team, an advantage. When asked what team they root for, they coyly responded, "The Washington Senators." The Senators played their last game in 1971.

Thirty teams remain. Play ball!

article taken word-for-word from New York and Co.