Baseball split into three divisions in each league in 1994, adding the Wild Card that year, although no post-season would be played due to a work stoppage. Since then, the league has tinkered – adding teams in Arizona and Tampa Bay, moving the Brewers and Astros into different leagues, and providing for a second Wild Card team to give us an exciting one-game Wild Card playoffs. But the three-division structure has remained intact, even refined now with a balance of five teams in every division. The current structure seems…pretty good.
But more change could be coming. According to longtime baseball writer Tracy Ringolsby, baseball could be looking to expand and shuffle the divisions once again.
There seems to be a building consensus that baseball will soon be headed to a 32-team configuration. It will lead to major realignment and adjustments in schedule, which will allow MLB to address the growing concerns of the union about travel demands and off days.
One proposal would be to geographically restructure into four divisions, which would create a major reduction in travel, particularly for teams on the East Coast and West Coast, and add to the natural rivalries by not just having them as interleague attractions, but rather a part of the regular divisional battles.
His hypothetical realignment would have Kansas City in an eight-team Midwest Division with the Cubs, White Sox, Rockies, Astros, Brewers, Cardinals, and Rangers. The schedule would be shortened to 156 games, with a three-game series against every team not in your division, plus 12 games against each divisional opponent. There would be an off day each week, easing travel.
The post-season would feature the eight best teams not to win the division battling each other in a Wild Card round (Ringolsby isn’t clear on the structure). The four winners would take on the four division winners. This would be an added layer of post-season, attractive to television rights-holders, and two more post-season teams, attractive to team owners hoping to keep attendance high in the late summer months.
The benefits are more off-days and easier travel for players, more regional rivalries, more fans experiencing the post-season, more post-season games to sell to rights-holders, (and of course, those lucrative expansion fees!) Who could be against this?
Baseball has talked about radical realignment for awhile. Way back in 1998, David Glass, when he was the Chairman of the Board that ran the Royals, was pushing a radical realignment proposal that would have grouped teams by regions. Instead, MLB decided to let the Brewers switch leagues.
I am admittedly a baseball traditionalist that hates and fears radical change to the sport of baseball. It took me about two decades to get used to the Wild Card. I am still wary of interleague play. Even intercontinental plan travel makes me wince – players should ride the 20th Century Limited rail service like the old days!
I resisted the three-divisional format and Wild Card at first, but the refinement to the current divisional system is quite acceptable to me now. The Wild Card game has provided an exciting one-game playoff and the most memorable moment in Kansas City sports history. The divisional alignment now fairly puts five teams in each division rather than the inequitable alignment previously used. Teams are in regional divisions, but still grouped by league, with the idiosyncrasies of each league still intact. The current system seems pretty good. Why change? Here are a few of my concerns.
The American and National Leagues would be abolished
For over a century, the American League champion and the National League champion have met in the World Series. Under this proposal, that would end. The World Series would feature the best of the “East” against the best of the “West”, with Kansas City on the border of a heated regional rivalry cutting across the middle of this country.
Perhaps the distinctions between the AL and NL are blurring anyway, with the league offices eliminated, the advent of interleague play, and the decline of the bunt. But I still think the difference in leagues matters, is unique among sports, and is worth preserving. Baseball would also have to adopt uniform rules on the designated hitter – likely a league-wide adoption of the rule – which could irk many traditional NL fans, as well as driving up the price for players at that position.
Regional baseball is overrated
Baseball has been pushing for more regional divisions for a long time, mostly to cut down on travel. There is also a thinking that fans will enjoy regional rivals playing against cities near them. It might be true that the 12 games the Royals would have against the Cardinals would be well-attended games, but a Royals-Brewers rivalry will not spring up just because they are in the same time zone.
More games against regional opponents also comes at the expense of seeing other teams. Under this proposal, Royals fans would only get to see the Yankees every other year, for just three games. Same with the Red Sox. And current divisional rivals in Cleveland and Detroit. And the Angels and Athletics – who they actually had a rivalry with back in the 1970s.
Less regular season baseball
It’s not a huge deal, but there are six fewer games on the schedule. That is less baseball for all to enjoy. Each week there would be an off-day, a day for us to twiddle our thumbs and talk about Game of Thrones. Baseball holds its records dear, and changing the schedule again (it expanded from 154 to 162 games in 1969) could affect how we see regular season records. This isn’t a huge reason to object to realignment, but it is a bit irritating to me.
Are there expansion candidates?
I am still old enough to remember when people complained there were too many teams and we needed to contract two franchises. There is evidence that the talent pool can handle expansion at this time. Baseball hasn’t expanded since 1998, the longest period in baseball history without expansion since they first began adding teams.
Last year I looked at the best expansion candidates for baseball, and concluded there were still major issues with all of them. Ringolsby reports that there is a potential ownership group in Portland with some public money available, but Portland has seemed rather averse to spending money on subsidizing sports, causing their minor league team to move away. There have been rumors of an ownership group and potential stadium support in Montreal, but no hard reports. If those two markets can solidify ownership and stadium situations, they would be attractive markets, but we still seem to be a ways off. Expansion seems unlikely as long as there are still unresolved stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay (baseball loves to have that prime relocation candidate city out there as leverage to force stadium votes).
The playoffs are watered-down
Ringolsby isn’t clear on all the specifics of the post-season layout, but my take is each regional league (East and West) would have two division winners, then would take the four next-best teams as Wild Cards. Those four teams would match-up to play each other in a one-game playoff, with the two winners taking on the two division winners in a Divisional Series, following by a League Championship Series.
This adds two more teams to the post-season – two teams likely to be pretty mediocre. We saw already how many weak teams were in the American League Wild Card race this year, adding two more teams to the mix further dilutes the post-season. Giving the sixth-best team in the league a shot at the championship dilutes the regular season and moves towards more of an NBA model where the regular season matters little and the playoffs mean everything.
Perhaps I am just being a stick in the mud, and would eventually get used to this proposal in another 20 years. Certainly having four eight-team divisions is a big advantage over having eight four-team divisions, an idea that would almost certainly lead to many losing teams making the post-season. Moving to more off-days and less baseball seems to be an inevitability due to player complaints and owners’ desire for a longer post-season to sell to networks. And hey, Portland and Montreal are gorgeous cities that would be a great addition to Major League Baseball.
But a big part of baseball’s appeal is its timelessness. You can compare Mike Trout’s numbers with Mickey Mantle’s. Maybe not perfectly, but it’s basically the same game. Baseball, of course, needs to change at times (allowing African-American players, for example) but the change should come after serious thought and consideration to the downsides, the break from tradition, and the reverence to history. Baseball may need to change, but this seems like a solution in search of a problem.