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Think you have a tough job? Try putting together Major League Baseball’s schedule and pleasing 30 teams

Math prof  Michael Trick and his partners have the tricky task of balancing each team’s scheduling needs, many of them conflicting.

It’s far too late to make any radical changes to the 2009 Major League Baseball schedule. So Twins President Dave St. Peter offered two special requests to pass along to the firm that produces the 2010 sked: No road trips longer than nine games, and one interleague visit by the Cubs. “Because they do draw fans,” St. Peter said.

Add the constraints of 29 other teams to the pile — some of which aren’t as modest — and you’ve got a potential mess. That’s what Michael Trick, an operations research professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and his partners at the Sports Scheduling Group (SSG) deal with every year while assembling the MLB schedule.

Trick, a Winnipeg native who spent 1986-87 as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota, returned to the U’s Institute for Mathematics and Its Applications (IMA) on Wednesday for its “Math Matters” lecture series. Trick admits to being a Twins fan and, during his fellowship, nabbed the only foul ball of his life at the Dome, hit by Gary Gaetti.

 “It bounced off another guy’s hands,” Trick said. “I think it broke one of his fingers.”

Putting together a Major League Baseball schedule, even using computers, can be equally painful. 

For decades, MLB hired outside contractors to draw up its schedule. Henry and Holly Stephenson, a married couple, did it from 1981-2004. SSG was founded in 1996, with coordinating partner Doug Bureman — a former senior vice president of the Pittsburgh Pirates — providing an MLB contact. Still, it took eight years before SSG successfully wrestled the scheduling from the Stephensons.

 “They were good,” Trick said. “I thought in the mid-1990s it wouldn’t take long to beat Henry and Holly, but I was wrong. It took a long time before my group was able to compete with them.”

The firm earned the bid for the 2005 schedule after convincing MLB that operations research — which uses mathematics to solve business problems — could produce a fairer schedule.

The finished schedule SSG submits does not include game times. Home clubs set those, according to Katy Feeney, MLB’s senior vice president for scheduling and club relations. So any Twins annoyed at playing an afternoon game at Wrigley Field on June 12, after an afternoon game two time zones away in Oakland on the 11th, should take it up with the Cubs. SSG isn’t responsible for rescheduling rainouts, either, a question Trick said he often gets.

Feeney said MLB hasn’t awarded a contract for the 2010 schedule, which it hopes to produce in-house. Trick said SSG is working on one just in case.
Last year’s schedule, which MLB initially tried to do itself, proved especially challenging. First, as Trick explained in his lecture, baseball asked the firm for help. Then Commissioner Bud Selig requested changes. Two more adjustments followed. The first sent Colorado and the Twins on the road during the national political conventions in Denver and St. Paul, saddling the Twins with a four-city, 14-game road trip over late August and early September. The second accommodated Pope Benedict XVI’s Mass at Yankee Stadium.

The 2009 schedule offers nothing that dramatic. But the Twins, who put single-game tickets on sale at noon Saturday, have another issue.

 Last fall, before most people realized the extent of the recession, the club announced a ticket price increase. Most seats are $1 more than last year and $3 more for so-called “select games,” a pricing level new this year — all Fridays and Saturdays between Memorial Day weekend and the end of August. High-end “premium games,” against the Yankees and Red Sox, are about $5 more. So an upper box seat that was $24 for non-premium games last year will cost $25 for most games, $27 on select Fridays and Saturdays, and $30 for the Yanks and Sox.

Since then, the Wild and Vikings announced price freezes for next year. And this week the Timberwolves unveiled creative season-ticket options with the cash-strapped fan in mind.

Mindful of that, on Mondays the Twins will sell $21 Home Run Porch tickets in left field at a discount based on the Dow Jones Industrial Average at the close of the market each Friday. A Dow close in the 7,000s means $7 tickets for games the following week; an 8,000 close means $8 tickets, etc. (There is an eight-ticket limit per person, and the discount does not apply on Opening Night or the May 25 Red Sox game.)

St. Peter said more deals will be forthcoming, to encourage fans to buy in advance.

So why does St. Peter favor the Cubs, rather than, say, a second visit by the Yankees? St. Peter believes the Yankees, who last won a World Series in 2000, aren’t the draw in Minnesota that they used to be, and numbers bear him out. Their seven games here last year topped out at 36,441, and only one of their three April 2007 appearances drew 30,000.

Meanwhile, Brewers-Cubs games in Milwaukee regularly sell out. And Southwest Airlines’ new service to Midway Airport could make Minneapolis an attractive short hop for Cubs fans, especially after Target Field opens.