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July 8, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Real Realignment Solution

by Kevin Baker

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Kevin Baker is a novelist and historian who is currently at work on a social history of New York City baseball, to be published by Pantheon. 

I’m old-school. That is to say, I’m a hidebound, head-in-the-sand, troglodyte traditionalist. Especially when it comes to baseball.

I was vehemently opposed to the entire idea of including a wild card in the playoffs. I hated the idea of inter-league play with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. I even viewed the original idea of dividing the leagues into divisions, a-way back in 1969, with a gimlet eye.

(One exception: I have always liked the designated hitter, mostly because I can’t stand watching professional athletes do something they can’t do, i.e., pitchers trying to hit. We don’t make linebackers kick field goals or goalkeepers—hockey or soccer—take penalty shots. Do those games suffer for it?)

So I’m none too happy with the latest proposals to expand the baseball playoffs yet again—and not just because they’re likely to extend the season through Thanksgiving.

It seems to me that all of these adjustments to how baseball decides its champions detract from the great beauty of the sport, which is the long season. As far as I have been able to discover, the whole concept of league play started with professional baseball. Before the National Association began play in 1871, teams in all sports, amateur and professional, had challenge matches with other clubs or went on barnstorming tours, but that was it.

The whole idea of a months-long, league competition, with the same number of games played against all participants, was something new under the sun. What’s more, it was something that worked wonderfully well to emphasize the merits of the game: the hairsbreadth margin on which baseball is played, the way in which true class reveals itself only through so many accumulations of minute advantages.

The more rounds of playoffs you have, the more teams you include that didn’t finish first, the more random games you have against teams in another leagues playing by other rules, the more you diminish that beauty and smudge the mark of a true champion.

That’s the old-school theory, anyway. I have to admit that, in practice, while the wild card has annihilated some pennant races, it has created others, and both the modern playoffs and (some) inter-league games have created a brand-new excitement (although someone should look into why it is that, in recent years, so few playoff series have gone to their maximum, five or seven games).

Never content to leave well enough alone, Bud Selig and his merry band of magnates have been floating various proposals to add a new wild card team or more in each league. The leading idea so far seems to involve adding one more wild card, the number-five team in each league, which would then have a one-game “play-in” with the number-four team to determine which would continue in the playoffs.

They are also looking at new realignments to the leagues and divisions, such as transferring the Houston Astros to the American League so both circuits would have an uneven fifteen teams. Or, they are suggesting that all the divisions be abolished, period, leaving all the teams in each league to fight it out, with the top five making the playoffs for a competition as described above.

To all of which, I say, “Blecch!”

To be sure, the ideas have their merits. That one-game play-in idea for the wild card teams would leave the winner at a real disadvantage for at least the first round of the playoffs, thereby putting a much greater premium on finishing first in one’s division. Moving Houston to the American League West, say, would not only even up the leagues and the divisions, but create an active rivalry between the two Texas teams and provide some succor for the poor Rangers, now stranded two time zones away from all their division rivals.

Yet all of this sounds like the death of a thousand cuts for everything that’s best about the game. Nothing man-made can long stay as it was. How soon will it be before we get a sixth, or a seventh, or an eighth wild card in each league?

Moving Houston, after a mere half-century in the National League, flouts baseball’s other greatest attribute, which is its sense of tradition. It was bad enough plucking the Milwaukee Brewers from the American League already. Are we now going to see teams shuttled back and forth regularly on further whims? And while the idea of the big, fifteen-team league has a certain purity, I think it was back in the nineteenth century that someone first said you can’t sell a twelfth-place team.

So…all that said, and considering that baseball will feel compelled to fix what isn’t broken sooner or later, how about a big, fat, radical change now?

I’m talking about a major realignment, one that will make all the necessary changes at once and set all of baseball on a path to create new rivalries and new traditions as quickly as possible. One that will address most issues of competitive imbalance by pitting teams of comparable resources and markets against each other as much as possible. One that will provide a whole passel of new playoff games and playoff teams; new revenue streams; and contain something for everybody—players, owners, and fans.

It will even fulfill Commissioner Selig’s absurd yearnings for baseball to go “international.” I mean beyond the widely ignored, triennial “World Baseball Classic,” which right now could just as soon be renamed the “World Meat Grinder for Japanese Pitching Arms.”

What I’m talking is four, brand-new leagues, set up as follows:

Workers Internationale League

Boston
New York Yankees
New York Mets
Philadelphia
Baltimore
Washington
San Juan, P.R. (expansion team)
Santo Domingo, D.R. (expansion team)

Rusty Sunbelt League

Pittsburgh
Cleveland
Cincinnati
Detroit
Toronto
Atlanta
Tampa Bay
Florida

Prairie League

Chicago Cubs
Chicago White Sox
Milwaukee
Minnesota
St. Louis
Kansas City
Houston
Texas

True West League

Denver
Arizona
San Diego
Los Angeles Dodgers
Los Angeles Angels at Somewhere or Other
San Francisco
Oakland
Seattle

Note, please, that everybody is plenty close to one another, preserving all existing rivalries—Yanks-Sox, Yanks-Mets, Cubs-Cards, Giants-Dodgers, etc.—while adding the chance to create new ones. What’s more, all the Beasts of the East—Yanks, Red Sox, Phillies, and (potentially) Mets—are bunched together, opening up all sorts of competitive possibilities. And four different teams get a chance to finish first, in a genuine, eight-team league.

Playoffs would all be best-four-of-seven, starting with 1-4 and 2-3 matchups within each league, then following with playoffs between the leagues, and the final World Series. This would mean 16 playoff teams. In order to accommodate the longer playoffs, the season could be reduced to 156 games, with maybe each team playing 12 games against the other teams in its league, then a three-game series against all the other teams—just so nobody complains that they never get to host the Yankees, Red Sox, or whomever. This would shave a week off the season, while another one could be trimmed by scheduling doubleheaders—separate admission, of course, to stifle the screams from the club owners.

No doubt, there would still be objections to teams losing three homes dates a season. But overall, with the addition of the two expansion teams, there would be 2,496 regular-season games, to the 2,430 there are at present. At the same time, the number of playoff games would increase exponentially, from the current 24-41 to 60-105. Plus, of course, the owners would get to pry their usual, extortionate entry fees from the expansion teams.

We can also expect objections that the markets for these new franchises, in Santo Domingo and San Juan, will be too poor to support major-league teams. But they will have the entire island of Puerto Rico and the whole nation of the Dominican Republic behind them, the most dedicated fan bases in the world, and added leverage in luring the best players in the world today into staying at home and playing for less. If major-league baseball really wants to take its game international, where better to start than a couple of baseball hotbeds within easy flying distance of the United States?

And just to make sure that everyone is happy, team rosters might be expanded by two or three players, to 27-28 a club, in order to deal with the condensed season and extended playoffs.

Of course, it’s impossible to believe that this new alignment, sheer genius that it is, will remain set in stone, either. Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards, and baseball owners to messing with a good thing, baby. But these four leagues are set up on a regional basis that will allow them to be expanded rationally—as the owners come to look for more extortionate entrance fees—down the road.

For instance, each league could easily be expanded and split into two divisions someday, as follows:

Internationale League

Redemption Division

Montreal (all is forgiven!)
Boston
New York Yankees
New York Mets
Brooklyn (the real solution to the New York market advantage)
Philadelphia

Global Warming Division

Baltimore
Washington
Carolina
Jacksonville
San Juan
Santo Domingo

Rusty Sunbelt League

Nowhere-But-Up Division

Pittsburgh
Cleveland
Cincinnati
Detroit
Toronto
Columbus Thurbers

Salsa Division

Atlanta
Tampa Bay
Florida
Havana (hey, he’s got to die sometime)
Nashville
Nicaragua Clementes

Prairie League

Keillor-Terkel Raconteur Division

Chicago Cubs
Chicago White Sox
Minnesota
Milwaukee
Indianapolis
Memphis

I’ve-Seen-Fire-and-I’ve-Seen-Rain Division

St. Louis
Kansas City
Houston
Texas
San Antonio
New Orleans

True West League

Azteca Division

Arizona
San Diego
Los Angeles Dodgers
Los Angeles Angels
Mexico City
Mexico City (hey, they got 21 million people, they can handle two teams)

Grunge Division

Denver
San Francisco
Oakland
Seattle
Portland (because it’s just so nice)
Vancouver (win or lose, they’ll run amok)

Or something like that. You figure it out. But I say that if baseball is going to change, then change, and stop with all this picking it apart, one new wild card game at a time.

Oh, and as for the designated hitter? Of course it will be universal! What is this, the twentieth century?

35 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Slingerland65

1971? Do you mean 1871?

Jul 08, 2011 05:04 AM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

Hilariously impossible. I love it. Except I've been in Houston 20+ years and I've never seen a prairie here. But that's totally nitpicking. Let's get this change done.

Jul 08, 2011 06:10 AM
rating: 3
 
jj0501

I love the division names. I do think expansion to 32 teams
is the real solution, you definitely have a point there.

Jul 08, 2011 06:21 AM
rating: 0
 
Bill B

This proposal is so much more rational than what we have now (except the DH must be eliminated — I mean, how fun is it really watching Adam Dunn this year?).

Best parts of the proposal: lumping the mega-market teams into one league, and adding teams in PR, the DR, and Mexico. Gotta get this done!

Jul 08, 2011 06:54 AM
rating: 4
 
T. Kiefer

Brilliant. This should be adopted post haste. My only modification would be to have the first expansion team be Cuba instead of PR (Viva Boricuas!), regardless of politics (I can dream), but PR should definitely get one one day. And I definitely think Mexico should have a couple of teams --wasn't there a Mexico City team that U.S. teams played (in exhibition?) back in the day?

Jul 08, 2011 07:02 AM
rating: 0
 
sneezeplayer

In the first proposal: why are both the Latin expansion teams in the tough division with the Red Sox, Phillies, and NY teams, while the closer FL teams are elsewhere? Also, why the DR team over the Mexico team (if financials is a concern at all)?

I also think the opening arguments sound a little absurd when you turn around and propose a 16 team playoffs. Why not only the top 2 of each league?

I do generally like the idea of a complete realignment, but I am not sure I would choose the same combinations. I kind of like the idea of two leagues, four 4-team divisions, no wild cards. Then you would not have to put the sox, yanks, phillies and mets into the same division but could still have them play each other in the regular season without introducing inter-league games.

Jul 08, 2011 07:28 AM
rating: 3
 
jhardman

Excellent! And not just because someone is finally thinking that there should be a team in North Carolina...

Jul 08, 2011 08:00 AM
rating: 1
 
beerchaser42

Hear, hear!!!

Jul 11, 2011 07:45 AM
rating: 0
 
Davidsilverwood

Okay let us stop playing around 1. we dont need anymore teams, 2. kill the dh 3. kill interleague play and estblish 2 8 teams divisions in the nl and 2 7 team divisions in the al with the division winners playing to decide who goes to the series----plus get rid of Selig and have each league with a president with a reasonable person as the commissioner,

Jul 08, 2011 08:32 AM
rating: 5
 
jerrykenny

Here, here.

Unfortunately your suggestion is far too sensible, and has the added disadvantage of having proved itself for nearly a quarter of a century, to ever be adopted by MLB.

Jul 08, 2011 11:10 AM
rating: 1
 
ostrowj1

I disagree with your thoughts on the DH . You write "I can’t stand watching professional athletes do something they can’t do", but pitchers cannot hit not because they cannot, but because they choose not to. A more accurate football comparison is if linebackers decided they would stop caring about the passing game, then 20 years later complain that because they are not good at defending the passing game, they should not be expected to do it.

Jul 08, 2011 09:18 AM
rating: 2
 
briant1
(778)

Agreed. Also, taken to its logical conclusion, doesn't that mean that there should be up to 9 designated fielders? I mean, as a Cub fan I can assure you it's no fun watching Alfonso Soriano attempt to play left field. He can't do it. So shouldn't the Cubs be able to play Tony Campana in the field and bat Soriano?

Jul 08, 2011 09:29 AM
rating: 7
 
skarski10

Haha it would be just like football. There would be an offense and a defense. Terrible! The DH needs to be eliminated.

Jul 08, 2011 10:56 AM
rating: 3
 
bmarinko

I wouldn't say that pitchers choose not to hit. Instead, the demands of pitching don't give them the time needed to develop into a good hitter. Plus, at best, they are swinging the bat in live action once every 5 games. Without consistent repetition, its hard to become a decent hitter.

Jul 08, 2011 09:42 AM
rating: 2
 
ddufourlogger

I like a lot about this, especially putting the big market teams together. I say top 2 from each division though. 8 of 32 in the playoffs still rewards being good for the long grind. Bob Costas or Mike Greenberg for commissioner, and let's do it!

Jul 08, 2011 09:42 AM
rating: -1
 
drawbb

Bob Costas or Mike Greenberg? I don't want either of those clowns anywhere near this sport, they might even be worse than Selig.

Jul 11, 2011 11:18 AM
rating: 2
 
Mountainhawk

So you hate all the minor scheduling things like divisions and wildcards, but you were ok with the DH which is a massive change from the whole philosophy of what baseball is about?

Odd definition of traditionalist.

Jul 08, 2011 09:57 AM
rating: 1
 
MWSchneider

The problem with putting the "big market teams" together is that what qualifies as a big market team may change. Obviously, New York and Boston will likely always qualify, but, for example, Atlanta was, for a time,a big market team due to the advent of Ted Turner and CNN. I think trying to manipulate the divisions like that is a mistake.

Personally, I like David Silverwood's proposal to just go back to two divisions. However, bowing to reality, I would still have two wildcards in each league. This would, at least, reduce the chances of some 83 win team winning a weak division. I admit to having some nostalgia at times for the pre-1969 alignment where you knew the best teams would play each other in the World Series but this is not realistic in today's world.

I have also wondered why there have been so few five or seven game series in recent years and almost none in the World Series. It may just be random chance but it seems as if a team is always down 2-0 or 3-1.

Jul 08, 2011 10:29 AM
rating: 0
 
jerrykenny

"However, bowing to reality, I would still have two wildcards in each league"

Why is this a bow to "reality" and Silverwood's advocacy of return a system that worked well from 1969-1993 and that was not crying out to be changed (unlike the "reality" we have now)somehow unreal?

Jul 08, 2011 11:14 AM
rating: 1
 
Davidsilverwood

thanks. Baseball unlike football or basketball does not need gimmicks.

Jul 08, 2011 12:47 PM
rating: 2
 
spinkate

I couldn't agree more with adding DH to both leagues. Nothing bores me more than watching a pitcher come to bat in a NL game.(snore) That's when it's time to get a beer or take a bathroom break.

Jul 08, 2011 14:12 PM
rating: -3
 
BobbyZ

Why stop at that "boring" part of the game. Who wants to watch big fat guys run? Or bad fielders field? Lets have a DR. He can stand next to the batters box and run for all hitters. No more having to watch big fat slow guys run. Fielders can all be DF's. No more having to play the field to hit. We could watch the best fielders and the best hitter and the fastest runners all the time. No more once your out of the game you can't come back. These are silly old rules. Bring pitchers in and out at will so they don't have to warm up every time they come out.

Jul 09, 2011 07:37 AM
rating: -1
 
Llarry

Having the DH in one league only serves an important historical purpose, and it serves it well. From the founding of the AL up into the '60s, the leagues were decidedly distinct. There were various reasons for this, not least of which of course were the limits of travel and media, which TV, highways, and jet airliners broke down, but there were different styles of play and management. By the late '60s, these differences started to fade, and the DH restored the distinction. It's approaching 40 years, which also means it's existed for over 1/3 of the AL's existence. It's time to get over the idea that it's some kind of newfangled abomination.

Jul 08, 2011 17:34 PM
rating: 1
 
anderson721

The most brilliant part is moving the Astros, which eliminates the disparity between the leagues in one fell swoop.

Jul 08, 2011 18:37 PM
rating: 1
 
Doom Service

May I suggest that the Rusty Sunbelt Division be known as I-75 instead? Catches most of 'em.

Jul 08, 2011 22:15 PM
rating: 1
 
BobbyZ

When are Baseball fans like the one's who read Prospectus going to realize that MLB knows your watching no matter what? They're worry is how to keep the fringe fan interested and gain new fans. Not us. They don't care what's right or what's fair. Just what put's more fannies in the seats and $$ in their pockets.

Jul 09, 2011 07:40 AM
rating: 4
 
drawbb

This is what happens when you whore yourself out to those fringe fans: You end up bastardizing the core product so much in a futile pursuit of magpies who aren't going to be there anyway as soon as they get distracted by the next shiny object...fantasy football..."The Decision"...Dancing with the Stars...the royal wedding.

Why the hell leagues waste time chasing mindless drones like that is the real mystery here.

Jul 11, 2011 11:23 AM
rating: 0
 
AexJohnson

José Luis Chilavert-a penalty taker who was a goalie. Thanks for writing. Neat ideas.

Jul 09, 2011 07:52 AM
rating: 0
 
dodgerken222

Calling yourself a baseball traditionalist while advocating the DH is akin to someone calling himself an abolitionist who advocates slavery. I mean, get real. So much of baseball is asking an athlete to do something he's not particularly suited for. You should have grown up in the era of shortstops like Hal Lanier, Ray Oyler, Gene Michael, Dick Tracewski and tons of others who could field but couldn't hit a lick. Adam Dunn was worth having in the lineup because he hit but couldn't field. Now he's
a DH and like Pat Burrell before him he sucks. You balance a player's assets and liabilities. It's part of managing and putting together a team. Never trust a person who wants to "improve" baseball by trying to make it more like football.
Traditionalist my foot. If you're an AL team with a good lineup you don't even need a bench most games. What about players who were famous for pinch-hitting? Smoky Burgess, Manny Mota, Jim Eisenreich...that's baseball tradition too. All unnecessary with the DH. Manging your pinch-hitters and pitchers in long extra-inning games...certainly not as interesting with the DH. But God forbid somebody with an attention span of a mosquito has to be bored when a pitcher hits. Non-stop mindless action...that's the hallmark of our movies and our music today so why not baseball? Subtlety be damned. God save us from traditionalists such as the author of this piece.

Jul 09, 2011 09:08 AM
rating: 0
 
anderson721

I suppose you also rant against the lowering of the mound, which is only a wee tiny bit older than the DH. I'm not a big fan of the DH myself, but it's time accept that it's here to stay.

Jul 09, 2011 09:37 AM
rating: 2
 
Drungo

Yes!! I tremble with fury at the malcontents who got rid of the pitcher's box, and made foul balls strikes. I weep disconsolately when I think of the idiots who couldn’t leave well enough alone on the fair-foul bunt rule. I throw things through my floor-model radio every time I hear an ump call a batter out on a 3rd strike foul bunt. And there is no appropriately vile level of hell for those troubled souls that stopped batters from calling for a high or low pitch.

If you’re going to be a traditionalist, go all in or go home. Man up, and reinstate baseball to the way God himself intended and channeled through Alexander Cartwright in the 1840s!

Jul 11, 2011 10:02 AM
rating: 4
 
dodgerken222

The lowering of the mound does not affect the basic strategy of baseball as the DH does. A manager does not have to foresee what part of his bench and bullpen will have to be utilized because the mound is a few inches higher or lower. A myriad of decisions aren't at stake. That's a pretty weak analogy.
Actually, I expect that soon you'll hear calls for a lowering of the mound again, now that the offensive fraud of the steroid era has subsided, and the common offense-loving "baseball fan" will soon find it too boring.
For the record, I accept that the DH is here to stay. I also accept that Lady Gaga is here to stay, and sequels to "Meet The Fockers" are here to stay. Doesn't mean I have to like it or that I can't "rant" against it even though I may "not be a big fan" of them.

Jul 09, 2011 09:49 AM
rating: 0
 
BurrRutledge

... and it was a pretty good rant as rants go. Even though I disagree with you.

Jul 11, 2011 19:06 PM
rating: 0
 
edanddom

Historically speaking, it was the club owners who developed and formed leagues, not some commissioner or committee. Impossible today with the structure of league membership as part of MLB. Unless the author has a cousin who is a HOF'er and who also happens to be a industry-leading marketing genius serving as a highly paid consultant to Bud Selig, getting Bud incredibly drunk (yes, cynics, drunker than usual), Bud likely will never agree to it.

Jul 09, 2011 12:14 PM
rating: 0
 
greenengineer

The fundamental problem is the wild-card. Once we let non-first place teams in, the pennant race becomes the race for the last spot. As we add more playoff teams, the quality of the teams competing for the last spot degrades. Better to have a 100-win team left out once in a while (NL West 1993) then to watch to sub-.500 teams fight for the last playoff spot (like hockey), while the good teams have been resting their regulars for a month.

Jul 12, 2011 05:10 AM
rating: 0
 
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