Seemingly on cue every 15 years or so, baseball talks realignment. First reports were that it was inevitable that the leagues would go even at 15, with interleague play lasting throughout the season. Now, commissioner Bud Selig says that talk of realignment being definitely on for the 2012 season was premature.
Either way, there are a few parts of the system that have bugged me for a while. Having three divisions, an unbalanced schedule and uneven teams has never looked or felt right, so why not take this opportunity to right a few wrongs?
Well, I’ve had this idea, so we’re doing this. Grab a pen, pay attention, and get ready for the new-look majors, according to these five steps:
1. Move the Brewers back to the American League
Having the Brewers in the National League has never felt right. While the city does have National League ties thanks to the 13 seasons the Braves spent in the season (including two pennants and a World Series crown). But the Brewers were never the Braves, and their more workmanlike identity seemed to suit the Junior Circuit (Josh Wilker of Cardboard Gods wrote on this subject, too).
The Brewers, of course, were born as the American League’s Seattle Pilots, and stolen after one year by Selig and moved to Milwaukee. This paved the way for lawsuits and, eventually, a new A.L. team, the Seattle Mariners. So there’s, really, three American League Teams sprung from one.
Paul Molitor, often injured and relegated to hitting for the pitcher, was made for the American League, and to me is the quintessential Brewer. I remember feeling some sympathy for John Jaha, the Brewers’ designated hitter who had to adapt to first base-pinch hitting duties after their 1998 switch. Robin Yount’s switch from shortstop to center field seems rather National League-like, but I’m losing track here. The point is, when the Brewers play the Twins or the Red Sox or the White Sox in interleague play, I never realize it’s an interleague game right away. The Brewers belong in the American League.
So, that leaves us with 15 teams in each league, and uneven number. Fourteen teams in each league would be a better fit, schedule-wise. Which means we’ll have to …
2. Eliminate two teams
If you’re among the 27 fans of Florida baseball, I suggest turning away now, because the Tampa Bay Rays and Florida Marlins have just been abolished in this hypothetical realignment.
Tampa Bay is a natural choice for contraction. Despite solid play the last four seasons, the team has failed to take a foothold in the St. Petersburgh area, is having trouble making money, and is starting to have trouble holding on to its best players. They traded away Scott Kazmir in the midst of a pennant race two seasons ago, and this past offseason, they let Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Raphael Soriano walk, while Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett were traded.
The Marlins, meanwhile, have never drawn fans, despite winning two World Series in their relatively brief time in the majors.
As an aside, I was discussing the 2003 championship Marlins, and how, in retrospect, they were loaded. Their infield of Derek Lee, Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez and Mike Lowell was a slick-fielding powerhouse in its collective prime, their outfield (Miguel Cabrera, Juan Pierre and Jeff Conine) was excellent, Ivan Rodriguez was their catcher and still close to his prime, their rotation of Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny and Carl Pavano was solid, and they had a good bullpen, with Braden Looper and Ugie Urbina leading the way.
My co-worker then brought up an amazing point — no one in that group will be remembered as a Marlin, except Conine. The Cubs, Mets, Red Sox, Tigers, Yankees, Rangers, Twins and Dodgers are all well represented, though.
Anyway, my sympathies to Miami for building that stadium.
3. No Divisions
One of the issues with the wild card is that often, in the American League, at least, the winner of the wild card will have a better record than one of the division winners. As a fan of the Boston Red Sox, this has happened more than I care to remember, putting the Sox on the road despite being superior in the win-loss column.
So, we’re going old school, lumping the league back together as one league pitted against each other. If this plan were in place in 2010, here’s how the American League standings would have looked:
1. Tampa Bay
2. New York Yankees
3. Minnesota Twins
4. Texas Rangers
5. Boston Red Sox
6. Chicago White Sox
7. Toronto Blue Jays
8. Detroit Tigers
8. Oakland A’s
10. Los Anaheim Angels
11. Cleveland Indians
12. Kansas City Royals
13. Baltimore Orioles
14. Seattle Mariners
It’s the return of finishing in the “first division,” which the Red Sox would have done in this system. It also offers a little more hope to teams like the Toronto Blue Jays, who seem forever stuck behind Boston, New York and Tampa Bay in the division system.
4. Balanced Schedules
Rivalries are born in pennant races and playoff matchups, not in 20 forced matchups every year. On top of it being more than a little repetitive to constantly see the likes of the Yankees and Orioles for 40 games, it doesn’t foster competitive balance. In doing away with the divisions, this plan also does away with tipping the schedule in the favor of divisional foes.
So, if the Seattle Mariners want to climb out of the hole they’ve buried themselves in, they’ll have to do it playing the Yankees the same number of time the Orioles will.
In addition, this ends interleague play. So many people seemed to be up in arms that the All-Star Game isn’t as popular as it had been in decades past. Well, now it will have slightly more intrigue. In addition, the World Series will have a sense of mystery again, and the schedule will be as close to fair as it could ever hope to be.
Here, each club will play the other 13 in its league 12 or 13 times a season. That seems like more than enough times to be subjected to another media blowout for a Red Sox-Yankees series.
5. No Designated Hitter
If I’m already changing some major rules and formats, it only makes sense to change the rule that most bothers me in baseball.
But beyond that there’s something to the fact that baseball was meant to be nine vs. nine, and this is not some antiquated concept that I’m trying to revive — 16 of the 30 teams happily operate without one. It forces strategic changes, and that’s not just related to the double-switches.
With the pitcher batting, runs will be harder to come by, and that’s good for the game. It shouldn’t be easy to score runs, they should be coveted and valuable. And if a key opportunity to score runs comes in the fourth or fifth inning against an ace, say Felix Hernandez for example, and the pitchers spot is coming up, does the manager pinch hit? Or does he try to lay down a bunt and keep the rally going? The Yankees ran into this in the 1981 World Series, pinch-hitting for Tommy John in the fourth inning of Game 6. It didn’t work, they lost a solid starter and, eventually, the World Series.
Life is hard sometimes. Sometimes a rally is going and the pitcher’s spot comes up. Sometimes the bunt goes foul on the third strike and it’s over. And sometimes, Tim Hudson hits one out. There’s little more exciting than watching a pitcher hit a surprise home run. And when a team comes up with a solid-hitting pitcher, like John Smoltz, Carlos Zambrano or Micah Owings, it becomes a weapon.
The most common response from fans who want to keep the D.H. is, “I don’t want to see pitchers hit.” And that’s fine. I don’t much enjoy watching punting in football, either. Icing is kind of a bummer in hockey. Who likes technical fouls in basketball? There are aspects to every sport that are less than thrilling, but they still have a place in the game.
Besides, John Jaha has long since retired. It’s not as though he’d lose a job again.