Radical realignment is a solution for a problem that doesn't exist
Baseball is a game of repetition and routine. From the president throwing out a first pitch on Opening Day to
In all their mild absurdity these are some of the best things about the game, and one of the best has recurred this spring. Just as you know the game is about to start when the lineup cards are presented, you know labor negotiations are about to start when you start hearing odd proposals having to do with parity and competitive balance. Over the years these have included such grand ideas as a salary cap and contraction. This year's model, coming ahead of the December 2011 expiry of the current labor accord, has to do with realignment.
As my colleague
Allowing for vast structural differences between the sports, this would in some ways be similar to the relegation system in European football, which gives bad teams lighter competition in weaker leagues in exchange for surrendering the revenue that comes with having big teams like Barcelona visit. And with the idea in the air, pundits have been proposing various other schemes lately, ranging from giving lousy teams easier schedules to herding all the rich teams into their own divisions to introducing a third league.
It's a bit sad for so much thought being put into giving inept clubs a handicap. One reason why baseball is appealing is that it's such a meritocracy; make it easier on teams of little merit than on their sharper rivals and you make it less so. There's a more obvious problem with this talk of realignment, though. Just as its antecedents were, this is a solution in search of a problem.
The most commonly cited reason for baseball to think of swapping teams around is, once the hemming and hawing is ignored, that the Yankees and Red Sox are too good. Their lock on two of the American League's four playoff spots is, the idea goes, unfair to other teams and their fans, and thus bad for baseball. This makes little sense, either in theory or practice. First, if one is to claim that their recent success has actually hurt the game, one needs to explain why the game is making more money than ever. (One might also note, if looking to European football for ideas, that the Premier League has done just fine with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United dominating far more thoroughly than the American League East has ever done.) More to the point, perhaps, is that the famous lock isn't quite so secure: In just two of the last four years, and five of the last 10, have both the Yankees and the Red Sox made the playoffs.
The more broadly stated version of this idea is that teams in small markets can't compete as equals with teams in large ones. Even if this were so, I'm not sure why it would be a problem. About seven percent of Americans live in New York, while less than one percent live in Kansas City, so if central baseball has an interest in satisfying large numbers of baseball fans it should be happy with a system that gives the Yankees a real advantage over the Royals. Once again, though, it isn't clear that the proposition is actually true.
One way to measure market size is to multiply population by income per capita, crediting each team in two-team towns with half the population of their market. The smallest market by this measure is Milwaukee, a .33 on a scale where 1.00 is average. The Brewers are competitive, and made the playoffs two years ago. The next smallest is Cleveland, which has also been consistently competitive and came within a win of the World Series three years ago. The sixth-smallest is Tampa Bay, which won a pennant in 2008; the seventh-smallest is St. Louis, whose Cardinals have been the dominant team in the National League for a decade, and the eighth-smallest is Colorado, which has made the playoffs two of the last three years.
On the other end of the scale, the largest market by far outside New York is Washington, home to a team that briefly threatened the all-time record for losses last year, while Boston comes in behind Texas and the Chicago teams come in behind the Marlins, who play in the large, rich city of Miami. There's simply no reason to think that teams in small markets, or their fans, are unduly harmed by baseball's current system. Teams in markets where people don't care about baseball are harmed, but that seems fair enough.
Why all the concern over parity, then? One simple reason: While the New York clubs represent a constituency of 20 million people and the Ohio ones represent about four million, each of the four teams has an equal vote and voice in baseball's councils. As usual, talk of competitive balance is, at root, about the desire of owners whose teams play in smaller and poorer markets to use that leverage to get more money, hopefully at the expense of owners who play in larger and richer ones. There's nothing wrong with them wanting to do so, and a good case to be made for mechanisms that would allow it, such as clubs pooling half of all their revenues and then splitting them equally. Tinkering with the schedule as a way of addressing these conflicts, though, seems a case of operating on the hip to solve an ear infection.
Still, the interesting thing about realignment is that it could actually serve the fans. While floating realignment is likely too radical an idea to have a chance, other, more modest proposals might well work. Probably the best, because it's the simplest, comes from those who suggests eliminating the divisions and just awarding playoff spots to the four best teams in each league. This would solve the perhaps overstated but still real plight of teams in the American League East, who not only have to beat out the Yankees and Red Sox in the standings but have to play them in a quarter of their games, and might make pennant races more exciting. Short of that, the best plan would involve adding two teams to the American League and splitting each league into four divisions, but for now at least this has no chance of happening.
Whatever the case, you can be sure that even as the Rays, Cardinals and Rockies thrive while the Mets, Nationals and Astros play miserably, MLB will continue marketing its sport by claiming that great changes need to be made so that teams in smaller cities can maintain some slender hopes for the home nine. Consider it just another one of the game's curious rituals, not as enjoyable as the seventh inning stretch but less baffling than hitters wearing their caps backward during the Home Run Derby, and all will be fine.