For the past week and change, I’ve been totally transfixed by the British political scene, and more specifically by the vote and aftermath of the referendum to leave the European Union. In case you’ve been under a rock or just, as you always should be, watching highlights of web gems and dingers, the United Kingdom voted to exit the European Union, in a decision that even supporters of the move regretted almost immediately. And, sure, there are probably a lot of people who are pretty pleased to be out of the EU, but there are also a bunch of folks left wondering “what have we done?”
It might be because I’m seeing everything through the lens of a British exit (Brexit), but I couldn’t help but think of our own imperfect unions in baseball, the American and National Leagues. Between the Brewers switching the NL from the AL and the Astros doing the reverse, through the dawn of interleague play and all of its various tweaks, and approaching the occasion of the fourteenth time that the All-Star Game “counts,” the AL and the NL have never enjoyed a stable experience. And at the core of this persistent tweaking is a whispered suggestion: Why not just get rid of both?
I’m sure that you’ve all seen various suggestions for how we might be rid of the two leagues, so I won’t do those suggestions the injustice of quick glosses here, but you also probably know the general idea: Break up the two leagues, and create four or five divisions based purely on geographical proximity. These divisions would allow for greater parity in travel distances, new and exciting regional rivalries, and, ostensibly, a fairer balance of playoff spots, punishing weaker teams and rewarding stronger ones across the board. A more perfect union, as opposed to a house divided.
In this way, the hypothetical “united” MLB looks more like an idealized EU than a post-Brexit UK, but I think the desire for change for the sake of change is important to consider. Much like the referendum that’s put the UK in its current troubles, any proposal to demolish the current MLB bi-league setup is a proposal to fix a clock that isn’t quite broken. There are flaws in the AL/NL split: Teams have uneven travel arrangements; the Designated Hitter is not universal; interleague play remains unbalanced. But those flaws are probably not fatal, not a cultural détente as in Brexit. At least not yet. And as Brexit has shown us, there is some truth to staying with the devil you know as opposed to the unified super-league of five divisions you don’t.
Effectively, as a fan, were you given the power to decide the fate of the league’s overall structure, you’d be in a paradoxical situation: Stick with the old and reify the bad things about our current situation in baseball, or blow it all up and take the risk that what you find next is somehow even worse? Do you open it up to mass fan votes, knowing the risks of ballot box stuffing and fraud could produce an Omar Infante as Vice President of Baseball Operations situation, or do you declare yourself God Queen or King of MLB Decision Making? Do you consider the players or the fans? Or do you chuck those two and consider the owner? What do you do?
Part of the difficulty of this question derives from the problem of who does and does not “have a say” in corporate decision-making for MLB. But I think the disenfranchisement of fans and democratic solutions to that problem should wait for another column. Instead, I want to think about the league owner as a politician in a classical sense. We expect MLB owners and especially the MLB commissioner to be baseball enthusiasts like we all are. We expect them to love the game, and perhaps most or all of them do. But at core, I want to argue, that love for baseball itself cannot be their guiding motivation. Instead, they’re playing a game of comparative risk, the stakes of which are the life or death of an entire industry.
So you can see why commissioners are gun-shy about major change. Even if you imagine that they have their employees’ best interest at heart, an MLB commissioner is unlikely to make broad changes to minor league salaries, or travel arrangements, or—perhaps least of all—to the very structure of the league. The very appearance of risk in any proposition that impacts the entire league is enough to make it an unappealing option to someone who would not only lose their job but probably their shirt if the league were to be materially damaged by their decisions. So we see small changes like making the All-Star Game “count,” or moral changes, like drug-testing enhancements, but systemic or structural changes—especially those that would impact the profits of owners—are not pursued. As Machiavelli famously put it in The Prince, a ruler is better off being hated than loved. He might, if he watched baseball, add that the ruler should be happy being seen as out-of-touch and regressive as opposed to progressive and accountable to 30 furious billionaires.
So what, then? Risk-averse commissioners in sports aren’t exactly news, you say, and I’ll give you that. But I think once you work out the reasons that owners are so risk-averse, you start to realize that the lack of real change in the game from, say, Jackie Robinson to now might not be the feather in baseball’s cap that many consider it to be. Dialectical reasoning—which I’ve covered at length in this space before but, at its simplest, is simply a claim that opposites at their most extreme resolve into synthesis—becomes fairly useless when the object under study just kind of hangs in the middle of the road. Baseball’s problems, in other words, aren’t going to get worse by playing it safe, but they aren’t likely to get better either.
Still, what Brexit shows us is that sometimes extreme solutions are more painful than we might initially expect. While there is a splinter left arguing that the UK being separated from the EU is actually a good thing for progressive and revolutionary politics, that’s a hard sell to the people materially suffering in the UK right now. And indeed, if baseball were to crumble based on a bold strategy by its commissioner, we might applaud the intention as fans while hating the outcome. And, even worse, we might find neither intention nor outcome worthwhile at all.
I suppose in the end, this meditation just raises the specter of “well, it’s complicated.” Change in the structure of MLB as we know it is desirable to many if not most, but there are almost no incentives to changing it for those who actually have the power to unilaterally do so. While we can hope for brave baseball leaders like Happy Chandler and Marvin Miller, they’ll remain the exception as opposed to the rule. We’ll have to root for self-interest to push progress, as it did with Branch Rickey and the integration of the sport. Sad as that may be, it’s part of the structure of the game as we know it, part of its massive inertia, to resist change—at times better than some sovereign nations!—for better or for worse.