July 8, 2011
The Real Realignment Solution
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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
Rusty Sunbelt League
True West League
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:
Montreal (all is forgiven!)
Global Warming Division
Rusty Sunbelt League
Keillor-Terkel Raconteur Division
True West League
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?