This is a slightly modified version of what I wrote for my own blog. However, I wanted to introduce it to a more baseball-inclined audience that what I normally have. This was written to be a trifle provocative, so please accept this in the spirit that is intended. -- W.M.
In the past couple of days, there has been a bit of talk about Major League Baseball re-aligning their divisions and teams. Each of the other major sports leagues have re-aligned in the past decade while baseball went to its current alignment in 1994 (the only minor change being the Milwaukee Brewers moving to the National League, a move that coincided with the entrance of expansion franchises Tampa Bay and Arizona in 1998).
As it stands the, NL has sixteen teams and the AL has fourteen; much of the talk surrounds 'evening' out the two leagues. Former Nationals GM (and recruitment cheating enabler) Jim Bowden put forth this 'radical' plan that would effectively eliminate the two leagues in favor of 'conferences' based on geographic realities. At the heart of all of this (and the real reason for talking about this) is the idea of expanding the playoffs.
Bud Selig, the MLB Commissioner
For Life has made it a stated goal that he wants at least one more team per league in the postseason; others have said they don't mind if they have an NBA or NHL style of postseason. I think that would be a rotten idea. Part of baseball's charm is that they don't let everyone and his mother into the postseason. Over half of the teams in the NBA and NHL make their playoffs; only just over one-quarter of MLB teams make it in. It is a privilege that a team earns, and they have to work hard over 162 games during the season to get in. Stumbling through the back door is a rarity in baseball, but it is seen all too often in the other aforementioned sports.
The solution is actually quite simple - it's so simple in fact, it makes a lot of sense and it would work so well that it would never happen. My solution involves a couple of different aspects, which I now present to you...
It is such an ugly word in baseball, especially after Bud's ham-handed attempt to impose it on the Twins and Expos about ten years ago. My thought would be to trim some dead wood from Major League Baseball. There are thirty teams now - six teams need to be eliminated. The candidates are both Florida teams (Marlins and Rays), the Colorado Rockies, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Washington Nationals, and the Oakland Athletics.
The first four teams are all recent expansion franchises from the past eighteen years. The Marlins and Rockies joined in 1993; the Rays and D'Backs in 1998. Florida and Arizona are great Spring Training states and they should stay that way. Colorado has always had a bastardized game that requires a humidor just to make things 'fair'.
The other two will be a bit more controversial - first, the Nationals (when they were the Expos) were once a prime candidate to be contracted. Then they became the red-headed stepchild of MLB until they were sold to the Lerner family in DC, who promptly bungled quite a few things. Even the stadium, which is nice, is cold and sterile, and designed with the express purpose of separating the fans from their money rather than being a location to watch a baseball game. Washington, DC is a Redskins town first, then a basketball town; baseball, no matter what history people will talk about concerning the Senators, will always bring up the rear behind those and hockey. The fanbase isn't there in such a transient area - just look at me, the Phillies fan, who has lived in the area for well over twenty years now, and likely will never build up a groundswell.
Finally, Oakland, which was once based in Philadelphia (until 1954) and Kansas City (1955-67), just has never had the great draw, even when they were very good (late 1980's, early 2000's) or great (1971-75). While the Bay Area can theoretically support two teams, the lion's share of that support goes to the Giants of San Francisco. Their finances are screwed up as a result, and while there is consistent talk of moving the team out of Oakland itself (to San Jose or some other close locale), it is time to end the dual-team Bay Area experiment.
There are two potential plans for this - one involving a 154-game season, and one involving a 162-game season. First, there will be at minimum, two twelve-team leagues. The traditional National and American Leagues will remain as they are, minus the teams removed above.
154-Game Season: No divisions, twelve teams in the league and a team will play every other team in its league fourteen times during the season - two three-game series and two four-game series, one home and one away. I wish to see interleague play completely eliminated as it cheapens the value of both the regular season and the World Series. However, I do leave room for one scenario that would allow for some interleague.*
There are two ways to go about the postseason - 1) Do it as it was prior to 1969 and whoever has the best record in the league goes to the World Series or 2) Have the top two or four do a tournament for the pennant, similar to what we have now - a best of five followed by a best of seven for the pennant. There is a bit of flexibility with this kind of alignment and scheduling.
162-Game Season: This would essentially bring MLB to the scheduling of sorts in 1969, when they went to two divisions in each league. A team would play each of its division rivals eighteen times (90 games) and all the teams in the other division twelve times (72 games). The issue would be who would be in which division, but never fear, here is the solution...
NL East: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh
NL West: Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Diego, San Francisco
AL East: Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Toronto
AL West: Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Seattle, Texas
The divisions are aligned here also to keep some of the traditional rivalries intact, such as Chicago-St. Louis in the NL and Minnesota-Chicago in the AL. This particular alignment would not allow for any kind of interleague play, but it would put an emphasis on winning the division, which is something that has gotten lost a little bit in the past fifteen years since the advent of the Wild-Card. The 154-game division-less leagues allow for more teams to make the postseason if desired, but the division alignment would eliminate having any more than two teams from each league making the postseason at all. The division winners would play a seven-game series for the right to go to the World Series and it would be that simple.
*The 154-game schedule can be lengthened to 162 games by adding two four-game interleague series - playing one against the team in the other league that finished where you did (fourth place NL team plays fourth place AL team, and so forth), and playing one against the 'mirror' team in the standings (First place NL team plays twelfth place AL team; third place AL team plays tenth place NL team, and so forth).
3) Pipe Dreams
Let me just say this: I loathe the Designated Hitter. It's a very simple concept - you play in the field, you hit. In a perfect world, the DH would not exist in any circumstances whatsoever. People can whine all they want about pitchers who can't hit and so forth, but the fact still remains that the DH is an artificial inflationary measure and is an interloping aspect of the game. At worst, keep it where it is - in the American League only and at best, eliminated it altogether. The day the DH becomes a regular aspect of the National League is the day the game starts dying a death by a thousand cuts (/Hyperbole).
The main issue here, though, is the fact that all of these changes have to be collectively bargained with the MLB Players' Association, long acknowledged as the most powerful union in America. Six teams being eliminated could only be done with the consent of the players, and the elimination of 150 jobs just wouldn't sound too appealing to them.
Likewise, the union is the roadblock concerning the DH - it is a way to allow (sometimes) washed up non-athletic hitters to
steal money get paid lucrative sums. David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero, Adam Dunn, and Jim Thome would not have jobs if they had to play the field for at least seven innings; no team would waste the roster space on a one-dimensional player. It's in the MLBPA's interest to keep the DH and to have as many teams as possible.
Anyway, this is all a faint hope. It will never happen, but this is how it would be in a fantasy world. Think about it, though - the talent level would be so much less diluted than it is now; several players who have no business sniffing a Major League roster will never make it past Double-A. The pitching would improve (a complaint always heard around expansion time), and there would be a little more parity in MLB (although I do believe such a thing is a tad overrated). This post has been an exercise in wishing more than anything else, but I suppose a man can dream, right?