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May 9, 2007
The Big Picture
Whenever a wet April occurs, calls are made to revamp the schedule. At one time, Major League Baseball tried starting the season in as many warm cities and domes as possible, but the cold-weather teams wanted to start the season at home, too. This results in snow-outs for Cleveland from time to time. The loss of games in April isn't that big a deal per se. The problem lies in which teams see their games moved to another date. The Mariners make just one trip to Cleveland during the season, so losing an entire series inconveniences them a great deal. They now are forced to make three separate trips to Cleveland and it turns out all on flights from the west coast. With Seattle in contention for the wild card, that puts an unfortunate strain on the team.
In days past, teams easily rescheduled April rainouts; the schedule allowed plenty of time to make up games. In 1904, both major leagues adopted the 154-game schedule. With eight teams in a league, each team played the others twenty two times, eleven in each park. So if games were postponed in April (sometimes due to darkness), there were ample opportunities to play doubleheaders or make up missed dates on off days.
With the expansion to ten-team leagues in the early 1960s, the powers that be switched to a 162-game schedule. This turned out to be a magic number for many years--in a ten-team league, it meant that each opponent played nine home and nine away against all of their foes. The real beauty came, however, when the teams divided into two six-team divisions. Playing eighteen games against your division opponents and twelve against each team in the other division came out to exactly 162. I don't know if schedule makers anticipated the split, but it worked out perfectly.
As a second benefit, this two division format divided the season nicely into five sections. The season started with a home-and-home swing against your division (about 30 games) followed by a home-and-home against the other division (about 36 games). Lather, rinse, repeat. The season ended with a home-and-home stretch within each division, so deciding the four division champs came down to the competing teams going head to head. But notice that games in April were among teams in the same division, so they would have at least two opportunities to make up the postponements without causing extra travel. Yes, sometimes the last game of a series in August or September would be stopped by rain, but those occasions occurred rarely and if teams were not in a close race, the games could be ignored.
Even with 14 teams in a division, things worked out okay (the nice thing about that arrangement was that each team received a weekend series in every ballpark). But the advent of thirty teams, six unbalanced divisions playing unbalanced schedules, and interleague play, made things impossible to follow. There's little rhyme or reason to the number of games played against opponents. Why does Boston play Texas and LAnaheim 10 times each, but Seattle nine times and Oakland eight? Why do they play two series against Atlanta? Is that really a natural rivalry? Wouldn't those games be better played against the AL Central, where an Eastern team might be competing against a Central foe for the wild card?
Major League Baseball simply tried to shove too much into its schedule. They want an unbalanced schedule so the division winners face their division opponents a fair amount of time. They want all the teams to face each other at some point over the years, so fans get a chance to see all the great players, and in the expectation that rare teams increase attendance. But they also want a wild card race to increase interest throughout the season. Fans, however, want the wild card race to be fair.
In my opinion, the answer lies in the six-team division. The nice thing about six-team divisions is that they play 90 games intra-division and 72 games inter-division. The season divides nicely into five sections as described above, which lessens the impact of postponements in April. The question is how to get there.
The answer lies in finishing the work Bud Selig started as commissioner, killing off the idea of two separate leagues. The individual identities of the American and National Leagues really no longer exist--the league offices are gone, umpires no longer wear league designations on their hats, league presidents no longer sign baseballs. The league structure exists only to hold a playoff structure, and keep the MLBPA happy that the DH presumably creates 14 high-paying jobs.
So why not break the mold and create five six-team divisions? Each division would play 18 games against its five opponents in three home and home series. The other seventy-two games would come against two other divisions, changing every season on a rotating basis. Let's number the divisions one through five. A typical season might look like this:
Then every year you change it a little so teams see different teams from different divisions. The playoffs would consist of the five division winners and three wild cards, presumably the three best second-place teams. During inter-division play, each team plays one series against each of the twelve inter-division opponents. Whoever they play at home during the first set of games, they play on the road for the second set. So even if there is a postponement that can't be made up in the first set, it's made up on the road in the second.
So this alignment preserves the unbalanced schedule, making the division crowns meaningful. It eases schedule-making by eliminating one team always playing out of division. It preserves the interest in interleague play due to not seeing every team every year. And it can even be green--configuring the divisions to minimize travel can save money and energy. Configuring them to maximize rivalries might even raise attendance. If six games a season between the Yankees and Mets are good, eighteen should be great!
Even the wild card fairness issue improves with this alignment. Right now, teams in the same division do not play the same opponents, nor do they play common interdivision opponents the same number of times. If you object to some wild card teams never playing each other, how about an extra round of playoffs, with the four second place teams with the lowest winning percentages playing three-game series for the last two playoff spots?
As for the DH? The teams that use it now continue to use it in their home ballparks. That would add a level of complexity to roster construction.
Myriad reasons exist to dislike the current schedule. Bad weather in 2007 highlighted one weakness, but others live on as well. A somewhat radical move to realign baseball into five six-team divisions alleviates most of these shortcomings. No doubt the dissolution of the National and American Leagues would meet with strong resistance, but that tradition is pretty hollow these days anyway. It's time to tear it down completely.