Realignment remains little more than theory for now. Neither commissioner Bud Selig nor his 14-man special committee has studied the idea, and there have been no negotiations about it between owners and players in talks toward a collective bargaining agreement, according to high-ranking sources in baseball. But that hasn't stopped baseball people from yakking about it.
NL Central owners privately have been complaining for years about the inequity of playing in a six-team division (as opposed to only four teams in the AL West), and that grumbling has increased with the ownership change in Houston. The Astros have no natural or regional rival within their division -- just as the Rangers have no such rival in the AL West. Pairing them in a division makes sense.
When realignment talk advances to a more formal stage, such as committee work and proposals, here are some fundamental issues to keep in mind about possible changes:
• Divisions aren't going away. There's no way baseball is going to let teams suffer the indignity of trying to sell tickets while in, say, 13th place.
• There will not be a balanced schedule. The players like a balanced schedule under the utopian idea that everybody plays the same schedule, but just remember who was the driving force when baseball switched from a balanced schedule to an unbalanced schedule: Selig. Moreover, a balanced schedule devalues two of the most important assets for owners: regional rivalries and an abundance of 7 p.m. local television start times to squeeze the most out of advertising dollars. (Out of time zone games are less coveted.)
• There will be no massive changes, only tweaks. Put away your cocktail napkin with the world's greatest realignment idea, like the one where you had the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Phillies in the same division. Not happening. Think 1998, when the Brewers switched leagues and the Tigers escaped the AL East for the Central. Those are the kind of moves that may be in play, but not much more.
• Interleague play will not be increased. Nobody wants any more of it, lest the leagues lose whatever is left of their identity. Two 15-team leagues create the thorny, ugly issue of season-round interleague games. Who wants to see the Yankees play the Pirates in the middle of a September race? The MLB schedule is tougher to tame than the Hydra of Lerna even without such a complication. But baseball doesn't want more than the 15-18 interleague games teams play now.
Whether it's mild realignment or a tweak to the schedule, change does seem to be in the air. Stay tuned.
One change that seems much more likely to happen is the addition of a second wild card in each league. The playoff format remains undetermined. (Anything other than a one-game elimination game between the wild cards will be a disaster for baseball.) But think about what it will mean for the summer pennant races and the trading deadline.
Today the second wild card would be the Cleveland Indians, who would not have to worry about chasing down the Yankees. The entire American League would be within 4 ½ games of a playoff spot except for Kansas City, Oakland and Minnesota. Toronto (three back) and Baltimore (4 ½) no longer seem hopelessly buried in the AL East with a second wild card. No wonder teams are in favor of expanding the playoffs.
Of course, more teams in the race means fewer teams will concede the season and dump players before the July trading deadline. Some GMs have floated the idea of moving the deadline to August 31. It's worth some discussion, but I'd leave it at July 31, smack when baseball owns the sporting calendar and enough time for reconstructed teams to play together. Not all trades are about dumping players. Trades between contenders are even more exciting.
By the way, without the Yankees and Red Sox, the NL doesn't bring as many otherwise-near dead teams into the race with a second wild card. But you'd still have a crowded field today: 11 teams separated by 4 ½ games for five playoff spots, including the contending Pittsburgh Pirates (2 back).
What a sad sight to see Dodger Stadium so empty for a midweek game against Cincinnati. The Dodgers' attendance is down 18 percent so far, the biggest drop in baseball. Given the way the McCourts have harmed the brand and given the sorry state of this team, it will get worse.
(How could a Dodgers team rank 13th in ERA with that park as its home? Last time it happened? Never.)
The clock may be ticking on McCourt's hold of the team. Thanks to deferred payments that are due, including $8.33 million to Manny Ramirez, McCourt's obligation for his June 30 payroll is "more than $30 million," according to a baseball source. That would be more than triple his usual payrolls.
Meanwhile, Selig continues to investigate McCourt's stewardship of the team, including issues with stadium operations, security and hirings and firings. MLB can wrap that investigation before June 30 and act on those findings or it can choose to leave the investigation open to see if McCourt misses his June 30 financial obligations, which would force MLB to step in.
Overall attendance in baseball is down 2.2 percent, but that's largely because of problems with the NL franchises in the biggest markets: New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Baseball had lost 672,654 paid fans through Wednesday, but 78 percent of the decline was attributable solely to the Mets, Dodgers and Cubs.