Realigning Expectations

I took a lot of heat last week for my maverick stance on the inferiority of basketball, but now that’s established, let’s get right back to baseball’s current issues.

Last week, the oft-mooted topic of realignment came up again as MLB and the Players Association started serious discussions. By realignment I mean changing the system of divisions and conferences into which baseball is currently split. The system in which the Balitmore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays (stuck with the Yankees and Red Sox) are glorified canon-fodder. Only a series of brilliant trades, lucky free agent signings and massively fortuitous drafts would see either of them climb up to third in the standings ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays. Postseason? Fuhgedaboudit.

Everyone of course now has their “this is how it should be” idea of what realignment should look like, but the worst I’ve seen so far belongs to ex-General Manager Jim Bowden, who’d like to see a division containing the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Red Sox and Blue Jays. He’s all about geographic rivalries apparently (which begs the question as to why the Phillies would be with a Canadian team but not with the only other team in their home state – i.e. the Pirates). He apparently also wants to kill the Blue Jays franchise, as the other four teams in his proposed division all play in one of the six largest markets in the country.

The worst flaw in his plan is that it fails to fix the one glaring injustice of baseball’s current system, which is that whether a team makes the playoffs already has far too much to do with what division they play in, rather than how good they are. Far better, surely, to return to the pre-division setup, whereby there are simply two conferences – the American and the National, with the top few teams from each advancing to the postseason.

The big reason for coming up with the division system in the first place was (of course) money, wrapped in the disguise of keeping fans interested. The theory was that if you support a team as hopeless as the Oakland Athletics now are, if you play in a 15-team league then it will be clear from early in the season that your team won’t get to the playoffs. And if your team has no shot at the playoffs, then you are (apparently) less likely to go to games or spend money supporting your team in other ways. With divisions of 4-6 teams, no team outside the NL Central can ever be worse than four places out of first. According to MLB, fans are dumb enough to be taken in by that ruse, and flock through the gates of the Blue Jays’ Rogers Center, for example, just in case their team can overhaul at least two of the three teams currently ahead of them.

Let’s not overthink this. 162 is a loooong season, which will (if schedules are not skewed) leave you with the best teams at the top. With those best teams having been through 162 games, it is an egregious injustice to have them dumped out of the first round of the playoffs in two games because a team with a vastly inferior record happened to play in a weaker division and so snuck into the playoffs through the back door.

Surely the playoffs should be about rewarding the best few teams with a shot at winning it all? Or is it really preferable to give that opportunity to an inferior team that happens to get hot at the right time?

The only way to really even up the schedule and teams’ chances at the playoffs is get rid of divisions and return to just the National League and American League. Moving the Astros to the American League to make it 15 teams per league has been mooted, and makes sense.

Take the top four teams from each League at the end of the regular season and have first play fourth, and second play third. It’s fairer for all teams and does away with the current tedium of having to play each division rival 19 teams a season.

Trouble is, this will never be about what is fair in sporting terms, it will be about what makes most money, and what the Players Association will accept go along with – so like I said, it’s all about money.


One Comment Add yours

  1. David says:

    I think the ideal is when there were 8 teams in the American League and 8 teams in the National League. But now that you’ve got all of these teams in each league, i think that you need divisions to provide some coherence to the league and also to minimize the crazy travel schedule. Divisions also maintain rivalries in a way that would not be possible in a 15 team league. But there does need to be a realignment – the Astros going over to the American League would be a great solution to a number of problems.
    But i think the biggest factor that makes the current system unfair and misleading is Interleague. I read that the latest proposals may well include an increase in the already excessive interleague schedule. But how can we meaningful talk about, for example, an American League champion whose decisive advantage was gained by beating National League teams. I had a soft spot for Interleague when it means the Phils played local teams like the Yanks and the Orioles, but the absurdity of it is driven home this year when we have to travel across the country to play the likes of the Mariners.


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