Tuesday June 14th, 2011

If the recent report that Major League Baseball is considering realigning itself into two 15-team leagues and possibly stripping away its divisions comes to fruition, the league might as well hand the ballplayers pucks and a hoop, too, because baseball will have lost its playoff identity and joined the NHL and NBA in their free-for-all postseason entrance.

In such a reorganization, as was first reported by ESPN.com, one team would move from the 16-team National League to the 14-team American League to even them at 15 apiece. This move carries some benefits, such as balancing each club's shot at a league pennant at 1-in-15.

But one additional proviso under consideration -- to scrap the divisions altogether -- would be doing the sport a great disservice. The report suggested that the top five teams in each league would make the playoffs (though it didn't specify the new postseason format), which roughly mirrors another recently discussed idea of simply adding a second wild card team to the current format, which admits the three division winners plus one wild card.

At this juncture it seems the realignment discussions are more speculative thinking than concrete proposal. One general manager texted to say he didn't want to comment because he "really had no knowledge of it until media reports." But let's save the consultants some billable hours and think this one through for them.

If baseball is intent on expanding its postseason to five teams per league, then it should just go ahead and add the second wild card without abolishing the divisional format that has served baseball so well since 1969. Divisions in baseball have a sense of identity and purpose, and winning one carries the mark of a significant accomplishment. By comparison, winning the NBA's Northwest Division is an essentially meaningless endeavor -- what matters in basketball is one's overall seeding in the playoff picture. In the NHL the three division winners are at least guaranteed the top three seeds, but the other five playoff entrants can come from any division.

That could happen to baseball, which would no longer have pennant races -- one of the game's most reliable annual selling points -- as a way to drive attendance and television ratings in the waning weeks of the regular season. Try marketing tickets to a club who needs to jump 10 teams to make the playoffs by going from 15th to fifth, rather than just four. Making more fan bases feel the postseason is a possibility is important and was central to baseball's decision to go to the three-division format adopt a wild card in the first place.

Critics of division play point to the inequities of the NL Central having six teams and the AL West having four teams while everyone else has five, and to the inherent disadvantages faced by Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Toronto when trying to overcome AL East behemoths Boston and New York. The former point can be fixed by moving one team from the NL to the AL; the latter point can be solved by adding a second wild card. Neither requires a division-free, 15-team system.

Besides, divisions do more than bring order to a newspaper's agate page, they heighten existing rivalries and help foster new ones between teams that help drive the interest level in the sport. On a practical note, the current system of unbalanced scheduling -- in which divisional foes play each other two or three times as often as other league foes -- has been in use since 2001 and cuts down on excessive travel when clubs are already playing 162 regular-season games in no more than 183 days. Midwestern teams would have an advantage over coastal teams who'd be making extra cross-country trips if divisions are eliminated and a balanced scheduled is re-installed.

In baseball there are Rivalries with a capital 'R' (think Red Sox-Yankees, Cubs-Cardinals, etc.) and there are lowercase rivalries, whose intensity ebbs and flows on a cyclical basis but is still important to baseball.

Take, for instance, the Rays and Red Sox. There are three primary ways to ignite a new rivalry, and the Rays and Red Sox have had all three since 2000: on-field feuding (Tampa Bay's Gerald Williams charged the mound on Boston's Pedro Martinez in 2000); meaningful matchups (the Rays and Sox squared off in the 2008 ALCS, won by Tampa Bay in seven games, and have battled for AL East supremacy ever since); and player defection (Carl Crawford's departure from Tampa Bay to join Boston this past offseason). No one will ever confuse the Rays as the Red Sox' Rival; but for now they're an important rival nonetheless, as will be seen every time they play, including tonight when they begin a three-game series.

One oft-discussed roadblock to having two 15-team leagues is that the schedule would require at least one interleague series to be played at all times, but why is that an issue at all? Will it really affect the average fan's experience if he or she sees an interleague pairing such as Royals-Rockies as the 15th game in a highlight recap show instead of an NL matchup like Astros-Marlins?

There are no more than a dozen interleague series that really capture the imagination of most fans and the ones that do are based on proximity (like Mets-Yankees and A's-Giants) or historical ties (the recent Cubs-Red Sox replay of the 1918 World Series, for instance). When the Dodgers play the Angels, it's because they should. When the Dodgers play the Mariners, it's because they have to.

There is a bright side here. Under the current set-up, interleague play is relegated to a strict time frame, leaving many of the more compelling series to be played opposite one another when staggering the timing of them would make a lot of sense. For instance, Orioles-Nationals will never have a chance at a national spotlight if it's played concurrently with the Subway Series. If that series is played in August -- and the New York teams are squaring off in June -- then the Beltway Series might gain some currency.

Players and managers could object to having to play interleague games in the final week of the season -- surely the Tigers, for example, wouldn't want to choose between starting Alex Avila or Victor Martinez if they were to lose the designated hitter -- but aren't we regularly reminded that a game in April counts the same as a game in September? Surely some griping would be heard, but eventually everyone will realize that as long as the total number of interleague games with and without a DH is the same, it shouldn't matter when they're played.

Of course, another idea would be to borrow an idea from the revamped All-Star Game and employ a DH in all interleague games -- but perhaps such a potentially fiery debate is saved for another time.

The objection here is not with the evening out of each league -- which is probably a good thing for baseball -- but with the removal of divisions, which are important to the regular season as an identifying characteristic of baseball. If there's too much concern about teams in smaller market being buried, then look at adding a second wild card for a short play-in series. Or tell them to use their revenue-sharing dollars more wisely. But don't change the fundamental structure of the game.

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