FanPost

Geographic Realignment... if it's inevitable, let's live with it in style

Yesterday over on Baseball Nation, Rob Neyer posted an article defending Bud Selig/MLB owners' decision to move the Houston Astros, after a half-century, to the AL. You can go read it and argue over there if you like... it includes a Seligian "inevitability" quote, and never mentions the Brewers once, so I won't bother rehashing that here.

There, and elsewhere, I've heard increasing resignation that full-time interleague play means that universal adoption of the DH is inevitable. I am a DH-hater, but I'm not going to argue about that here. I even heard Mike Krukow agree with the view on a Giants broadcast last night. He likes the DH less than I do, but he's a lifetime NL guy and a pitcher that hit, so it was interesting to hear him acknowledge the rising tide. In the Baseball Nation post linked above, it's taken as a truism too. So, let's assume we're stuck with interleague play and DH (or, for the weirdos out there, you can rejoice that interleague and DH are inextricably part of MLB play!). Even I know that at every little league, high school, and college game I see involves the DH. 25 years from now I don't think this is going to be an issue, considering that nobody even seems to remember the Brewers are an AL team.

I was surprised at the number of commenters that thought that geographic realignment is inevitable too. It's implicit in Neyer's article, in that the Astros got $75M to change leagues. There's a lot of money out there interested in shuffling teams, partly to save on travel costs, partly from the NFL mindset (which I think is inapposite, and short-sighted, and slights history, but anyway) that geographic rivalry sells better, and because the players' union has long expressed concerns over road trips, particularly of the coast-to-coast variety. As more and more seasons go by with teams only seeing intra-league opponents twice per year, fans are getting used to the idea that the Cardinals and Giants play less frequently than the A's and Giants. When the home-and-home series are separated by months during the season, they're often literally a different team the next time they hit town. So, again, let's assume for some or all of these reasons that Bud and the cartel make this happen and the players go along.

What should it look like? Well, usually folks look at the time zone map and plop teams into divisions based on that. New York and Miami are in the same time zone after all! Houston vs. Minnesota... this time it's personal! And the reduced jet lag and perceived geographic rivalries that would ensue are usually cited to justify them. The witty and intelligent bucdaddy posted a pretty good suggested alignment along those lines, and that got me thinking about a better way to handle the inevitable.

So, after all that, here's how to rescramble the eggs to solve geography problems but maintain some semblance of baseball tradition, and possibly build fan interest at the same time.

The AL and NL go back to, mostly, their historic 8-team configurations.

AL: Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Indians, Tigers, Twins, White Sox, Blue Jays

NL: Phillies, Pirates, Reds, Cubs, Cardinals, Mets, Brewers [there could be an expansion Expos franchise here too].

It's not perfect, but 12 of 16 teams stay in the league where they have played for over a century. Toronto stays in its original league. The Mets step into the Dodgers/Giants slot, which of course is why they were formed in the first place, and get to keep their rivalry with the Phillies. Some old rivalries (Mets-Cards, Pirates-Phillies, Yankees-everybody) lost with the unbalanced schedule might come back. The Brewers stay in the NL, but since apparently no one remembers they started in the other league, that shouldn't matter. ESPN and Fox can still show 400 Yankees-Red Sox games per year.

The leagues still span multiple time zones... but now it's only two. And in any case, they spanned time zones before teams traveled by air. It's not a new issue, and within the leagues travel times are going to be pretty small.

And, for those that hate geographic realignment period, this setup really feels a lot better than silly NFL compass direction divisions. Do we really have to talk much about why the Reds play the Cubs and the Indians play the Tigers? It feels even better if the NL keeps the DH and doesn't play AL teams every year... but let's hold off talking about those things for a minute.

Pacific Coast League: Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Athletics, Angels, Mariners.

Let's think of this as the Quantum Leap league: it puts right what once went wrong. The Dodgers and Giants aren't ever going back to NY, but this undoes the major damage done by their relocation to the West Coast in the first place. You can read about the "open classification" experiment here; basically the PCL was "allowed" to reserve more players with the idea that it eventually could become a third major league (or, depending on your readings, stalled until the cartel could relocate teams or expand). The PCL was very successful, both in terms of attendance and players produced, and could certainly have grown over time into a viable third league, especially had players like Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Joe DiMaggio stayed there. Bill Veeck studied the West Coast market for Cubs owner Phil Wrigley, and often criticized baseball's method of expansion, which produced noncompetitive teams that weakened leagues and diluted talent in the near-term.

This maintains the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, and as noted above, with unbalanced schedules those teams haven't seen intra-league rivals much lately anyway. It preserves the current NL West in whole. The Angels change leagues, but have a chance at making a real rivalry with the Dodgers, two big-spending titans slugging it out multiple times each season. Maybe they can revive some of the old LA Angels-Hollywood Stars virulence. Giants fans might remember the 2002 collapse against Anaheim, and another excuse to hate on "SoCal" is always welcome in San Francisco. The A's leave their native league, but they have struggled for a century to find a real rival in their league, and the pretend rivalry their fans think exists with the Giants might actually exist in this new league. A's fans certainly remember Kirk Gibson and the Dodgers, East and South Bay residents don't love LA either, and with the Dodgers' gigantic bankroll a nice David-Goliath battle might shape up. The Mariners also leave the AL after 40+ years, but 1) as already demonstrated with the Astros and Brewers, history is bunk to the cartel, 2) they haven't developed much of a rivalry with any team in their division or league, and 3) they might end up rivals with the Giants, as Giants fans would likely travel frequently to Seattle for games and annoy their fans as they do in San Diego now. Attendance in San Diego might be helped too as Angel fans (and A's fans) take advantage of an excuse to visit a very lovely location.

Finally, I think there may be some regional identity that helps build interest over time as well. It may make more sense when discussed below as to the fourth league, but I think that in general Westerners are more familiar with nearby states, family members are more likely located there, and most of these cities are in "blue states". I attended a Pac-10 school, and I think I was not alone in often rooting for the Pac-10 representative when my team (obligatory LOL CAL) was not playing in the Rose Bowl. I met many cool fans from Washington State and Oregon State at games over the years. I think regional interest was part of the PCL's success, and I bet it could come back.

I have also lived on the East Coast, and really believe that many fans just cannot get interested in Western teams in most sports (with the sole exception of the Lakers). I had a professor that often referred to "those big boxy states I can't remember". Eastern hockey fans could care less about teams west of Chicago. I frequently met college sports fans that refused to believe that the team with "Cal" on its helmets was from Berkeley. Whether or not you believe in the dreaded "East Coast Bias", only the craziest fans (or degenerate gamblers) are awake at 10PM when west coast games start. Game threads on east coast teams' boards are often pretty dull when their squads are playing out west. Fans of the reconstituted AL/NL are not going to miss these teams much.

The DH could work a variety of ways, but that probably depends on schedule too, so let's table both topics for the moment.

Southern League: Atlanta, Marlins, Rays, Astros, Rangers, Royals, Washington Nationals [plus a possible expansion team, let's say Carolina/Research Triangle or Charlotte or Nashville or...]

This isn't perfect, but I think it still has a lot to recommend it. And let's start with the obvious. I haven't ever spent much time in the South, but I am informed that there is a great deal of regional identity and pride among Southerners. I've been to Miami and Dallas, and I can't say those two places have everything in common. But the great American subculture persists, and this gives it a league of its own. There's a bit of Quantum Leap here too, as the Civil Rights battles of the 50s and 60s really prevented any kind of viable "open classification" attempt in the South during that period, before the Astros were chartered and the Braves moved and claimed the territory for MLB. If there's some regional identity/rooting interest among the PCL area, and I think there is, there must be even more at play here.

The major revisionist violence is moving Atlanta out of the NL. But their presence adds a bit of history (and a rock-stable franchise) to the new league, and gives the other teams a perpetual Yankees-type enemy to aim for. I'm not sure who their real division rival is at the moment, certainly the Mets don't do much on that front now. I am willing to bet the Rangers or Rays will shape up to be at least as much a rival as are the Phillies. And the Nats come along with them, so that could continue into a rivalry as well.

The Nats are also not a perfect fit, but plenty of their fans hail from Virginia in the first place, and with Atlanta along they might be able to build some enmity over time. I'm sure plenty of Southern fans would enjoy rooting against the team from Washington; the Nats would literally be the Yankees of this league. Ditto for the Royals. They don't really have much of a rivalry with anyone anymore anyway; they're as close to Texas as they are to Colorado or Chicago or Minneapolis. If this happens soon, they would be in a league with the Marlins and Astros, which would be friendlier competition. And they only have to play in one different time zone, and then only on 4 (or 5 with expansion) of their road trips.

Miami? Well, they may be beyond help, but perhaps games with other southern cities will develop some rival somewhere, and their attendance might get a bump from intra-league visitors. Tampa is free of the Yankees and Red Sox, which should be enough to make them happy. The Astros and Rangers are already in a division together; I'm not convinced they'll have much of a rivalry any time soon but whatever there is would come along. Maybe there's a Texas vs. the Deep South vibe, or they'll learn to hate the Barves as have so many others. They don't leave any rivals in the AL either. Other than the Rangers and Nats, all these teams' fanbases could use something different to energize them and spark attendance. Maybe this is it.

Schedule: League and "Association Play"

Here's where reasonable minds can differ. I hate interleague play, but won't go into why an idea that made sense in 1947 is so pointless now and only serves to grease the skids of the slippery slope that's led us here. As noted above, this post assumes that the cartel and TV folks want it and we're not going back. So, since we're stuck with it, the sensible thing to do would be to have each league have "association play" against all the teams in ONE other league each year. There would be a home and home series against each team in the other league, six games per 8 teams equalling 48 games. Assuming for the moment there are 7 other teams within a league, 16 games per league rival team per season builds out to a total of 160 games. The next year, leagues rotate, and within three years everyone has played everyone else. Playing those teams twice in a season makes them more familiar than the current single series, but doesn't make those games as mundane as the current "rivalry" interleague series. If two divisions only have 7 teams, that's easy enough to figure out too, but perfect schedule balance is sacrificed. Again, it has been for years, and it didn't keep the Astros in the NL, so this can't be a serious reason to object now.

Postseason

It would be nice if those 160 games were, as was the case for much of baseball's history, a round-robin tournament among 6 or more teams to crown the best. But pennant races are dead, and we killed them. So, the top two teams in each league could go to the postseason, which would make a simple 8 team tournament like we had until last year. It would make sense to always have the AL teams on one side of the bracket and the NL teams on the other to preserve some semblance of World Series history. Since the PCL would have mostly NL West teams in it, it might make sense to have the PCL teams and NL teams on one side and the AL and SL teams on the other. It makes some sense geographically as well; only the Mets and Phillies are east of the Appalachians among those teams; the AL and SL are contained in two time zones. The bigger divisions mean that it's less likely that 85 win teams sneak into the postseason and that the vast majority of a team's games are against their competitors for postseason births.

But, if we just have to have more 80 win teams playing in the fall, it's easy enough to keep playing the Selig limbo and lower the bar, extending to the third (fourth, fifth, ad infinitum) team in the league. It might make sense to give the pennant winners an automatic in, and then take the teams with the next two best records regardless of league. Or, in a step that would drastically improve the current setup in MLB, have a "springing wild card" that is only triggered if a team wins enough (90, 95, whatever) games to qualify.

It's also easier for fans to stay engaged with this; there's a reason pennant races were exciting. Rather than having a fake "wild card standings" board, each league's daily standings make the painful truth obvious to all interested observers.

Designated Hitter

I think this flows naturally from the "association play" setup. If the DH is universal, as assumed in the first place, well that's that. If the NL teams just can't quit the DH, they can use it in their games, and the AL can keep it in theirs. I recently read suggestions that the DH be left up to the home team manager, declared when lineup cards are presented each game. That would be really interesting, and totally fair. That could even be a test rule in the SL and PCL to see how it plays out: the PCL teams playing in the wide open spaces of western ballparks might really prefer to have a real position player on the roster rather than a AAAA baseclogger.

If the NL and PCL are on the same side of the playoff bracket permanently, they could stay with no DH (only three current AL teams are in that bracket of the association playoffs). The SL could have the DH along with the AL; in the postseason they could go back to the good old alternating-year method for the World Series, or better yet the "home manager calls it" rule.

Conclusion

Really? You read this far? Thanks. Take $5 from petty cash and buy yourself something nice. It felt good to write this out.

Assuming we're stuck with the DH and interleague play, and there's an appetite for "geographic realignment" among MLBPA, TV interests, and the owners' cartel, I think this kind of setup has a lot to offer. It eliminates dinky divisions and their 84 win "champions" from the equation, makes for broader schedules with more familiarity with regional or historical rivals, and preserves (or revives) elements of baseball history. It makes interleague (let's call it "association play") more of the novelty it's claimed to be, with teams facing each other twice in a season but not so horribly frequently (think Yankees-Mets or Giants-A's) as to become dull. Finally, it would be unique to baseball, and that's not an insignificant concern. As other sports seem to blur into time zone organizations and March Madness-style tournaments, this setup should be flexible enough to let baseball innovate without sacrificing history at every turn.

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