Fans wave an Astros flag in center field at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Major League Baseball's newest radical realignment plan isn't a terrible idea, writes Rob Neyer, and it might have something to do with moving on rather than running in place.
So, on the subject of MLB realignment and other matters, let me get something out of the way ... Monday, when the nation's columnists and pundits and older radio hosts awaken from their weekend slumber, you're going to be treated to a great deal of skepticism, if not feigned outrage, regarding the possibility of realignment and (especially) eliminating the divisions. Some of these arguments will be rational, but most will come from the same basic impulse: conservatism.
Not all, but most of the arguments will essentially be this: We can't do it this new way, because I like the old way!
Just so you know, most of the people making that argument were also dead-set against realignment and the related changes in 1994. Then, like now, most of the arguments were fundamentally about fear of change, rather than what might be more entertaining, more profitable, more fair, etc.
I don't mean to dismiss the arguments and the complaints that will attend any change to the current protocol. I'm just saying that most of them will be driven by emotion rather than logic. Which is fine; without emotion, there wouldn't be professional sports and I wouldn't make a pretty good living writing stuff for you to read.
With all that in mind, I'll just say this ...
Baseball won't be any less entertaining if the Astros switch to the American League. Baseball won't be any less entertaining if there's an interleague game every day of the season. Baseball won't be any less entertaining if the divisions are eliminated, with the top five teams in each league qualifying for the postseason tournament.
In fact, it's that latter possibility that particularly intrigues me. I think it'll be a lot of fun, seeing the standings presented that way, with the top five teams -- the first division, just like in the old days -- highlighted, and the second division teams fighting their way toward the first division.
One objection that will certainly be raised ... With 15 teams in each league and the necessity of an interleague game almost every day, the possibility exists that a contending team will be playing out of its league during the last week of the season. To which I respond, 1) So what? and 2) With a bit of forethought, the possibility will be slight.
Yes, last season's final weekend was perfect, with the Giants facing the Padres for the National League West title. But the Giants could just as easily have been playing the Rockies or the Dodgers or the Diamondbacks, in which case the drama wouldn't have been significantly greater than if they'd been playing the Mariners or the Brewers or the Twins.
What's more, there's a simple solution: Schedule those interleague games in the last week between teams that finished with lousy records the season before. Yes, eventually one of those teams is going to be playing for a postseason berth in the last week. But it'll be rare, and we'll cope.
All this said, I don't think realignment is particularly likely. First, you have to find a team that wants to switch leagues, and in the past that's been problematic for the same old reason: fear of change. There was no good reason for the Royals to spurn the chance to join the National League in 1994; they were just afraid to change. There was no good reason for the Diamondbacks' refusal to join the American League a few years into their existence; they were just afraid to change. Maybe the Astros are willing; but if not, there aren't many (any?) other candidates. It obviously makes sense to have five teams in the National League West, and the Astros and D'backs are the best candidates. Which doesn't mean one of them will actually do it.
And there are, to be sure, scheduling issues. Serious scheduling issues, even more serious than the issues that have, to varying degrees, afflicted the game since 1995.
In the end, I suspect the biggest obstacle to substantive change might be Commissioner Allan H. Selig. Since the beginning of the current system, he has steadfastly maintained that 15-team leagues simply won't work because "Then you would have interleague play every day." Now, he's never once explained what would be so awful about that. But I think his "reasoning," if you pressed him on this, would be that what makes interleague games so special is that they don't happen every day ... except of course interleague games stopped being special when today's college students were in the second grade. We all know that the only special interleague games are those pitting the "natural rivals" against one another, and the occasional match-ups -- Red Sox vs. Braves, Yankees vs. Dodgers, etc. -- that tug at our historical heartstrings.
Most interleague games are just games, though. And the sooner Commissioner Bud admits that, the sooner we might have something that's even better, however slightly, than what we've already got.
What would you like to see in 2012?
Exactly what we're seeing in 2011 (495 votes)
Two 15-team leagues, with divisions and two Wild Cards per league (782 votes)
Two 15-team leagues, with no divisions and top five teams in playoffs (1304 votes)
Same as 2011, but with two Wild Cards per league (206 votes)
2787 total votes