“I wanna make a deal with you girl
and get it signed by the heads of state.
I wanna make a deal with you girl.
Be recognized round the world.
Well, it’s my nonalignment pact.”
— Pere Ubu, “Non-Alignment Pact”
By now, we’ve all had nearly a week to digest Buster Olney’s weekend revelations about baseball’s possible realignment plans: baseball is very likely to move a team from the National League to the American League so that each division will have an equal number of teams, and it’s also considering doing away with divisions altogether. Dave Allen believes the plan could actually lead to more competitive races, not fewer, even though the six division pennant races would be replaced by two leaguewide pennant races with four effective “wild cards.”
Dave Cameron wrote that eliminating divisions is fundamentally an act of fairness, and he endorses it for that reason. This morning, I spoke to Yahoo! sports columnist Jeff Passan, who wrote a column a year ago proposing “unalignment” for baseball, the first comprehensive treatment of the notion of getting rid of baseball’s divisions. He claims no credit for Major League Baseball considering a similar plan, but he still fiercely defends the proposal.
There are four or five main pieces to this plan which need to be parsed, and Dave Allen and Dave Cameron have tackled two of them: competitive balance and pennant race excitement. The other issues are interleague play, the related matter of the designated hitter, and finally the trickiest of all: the fact that, every year, there will be a team that will finish in 15th place.
Interleague play and the designated hitter are impossible to discuss separately. Indeed, just a month ago, Jim Leyland complained that he didn’t want to play interleague games any more as long as he was unable to use a designated hitter in National League parks. Before the advent of interleague play, the only time an AL team faced an NL team in a non-exhibition game was the World Series — and Jim Leyland certainly wasn’t complaining about his team’s lack of a DH when the Marlins won the World Series in 1997. In the twenty-four years from the advent of the Designated Hitter in 1973 to the beginning of interleague play in 1997, the World Series provided an exotic chance for fans of both leagues to see how the other half lived. “They’ve been doing DH-no DH in the World Series for close to 35 years now,” says Passan. “It’s always a storyline, and always a point of entry.”
However, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch believes that the new realignment plan will lead to what he calls “perpetual interleague play” — because each league has 15 teams, at any given time there will necessarily be an interleague series. More interleague games, he believes, will simply increase the pressure on the National League to adopt the DH. “So let’s call this discussion, this talk of realignment, this Trojan horse what it really seems to be,” writes Goold. “An attempt to force the DH on the NL.”
Whether Goold is correct depends mightily on how the schedule ends up, and how many interleague games each team will play — which is very far from a settled decision at present. Goold imagines that each team will play six games against every team in its own league (6 * 14 = 84), five games against each of the 15 teams in the other league (5 * 15 = 75), with the three leftover games against a team in its own league. So while most teams play 15-18 interleague games now, Goold believes they could play five times as many in the new system — which would indeed provide a powerful incentive to standardize the DH rules.
Passan disagrees strongly, using a very different back-of-the-envelope calculation. In essence, Goold believes that the schedule would provide as much balance as possible for both league games and interleague games; Passan does not. Unlike Goold, Passan believes that there would likely be only one interleague series going on at a time: since there are about 30 days in a month, and therefore about 10-12 three-game series a month, that would mean that there would be about 60 to 72 interleague series over the six-month season, among all the teams in baseball. And because each team plays approximately four to five interleague series a season right now, if you multiply that by 15 (which is 30 teams divided by the two teams that play in each game), you get 60 to 75 — essentially no change.
So Passan believes that the overall number of interleague games would not change drastically, even though they would occur throughout the season rather than on specially designated weekends. If Passan is correct, then the DH issue is largely moot, and “perpetual interleague play” would cause no new added pressure for resolution.
So what’s the problem with unalignment? It’s the simple, heartwrenching notion of a team finishing in 15th place. A year ago, David Pinto responded to an unalignment proposal by Craig Calcaterra by saying simply, “No one wants to watch a tenth place team” — which a fortiori would apply to the teams in 11th place, 12th place, 13th place, 14th place, and 15th place. For fans of a small-budget team, that’s simply brutal, and Passan notes that it would be hard to get small-market teams on board for that reason.
The Pirates notwithstanding, the last two decades have been a period of tremendous competitive balance in baseball, compared to the first half-century of the modern era, numerous teams faced literally decades of losing, and many of them wound up changing cities, like the Senators, Braves, Athletics, and Browns. These teams alienated their fanbases by winding up in the second division year after year, until they simply had to get out of town, and the Braves ceded Boston to the Red Sox, the Athletics ceded Philadelphia to the Phillies, the Browns ceded St. Louis to the Cardinals, and the Senators ceded Washington to the Redskins. If a team spent decades in 15th place, it might need to move.
The biggest problem with the division system is that it can lead to bottlenecks like the AL East, or the NL West of 1993, in which there are more good teams in one division than there are playoff spots, yet weaker teams can limp to the playoffs because they’re in weaker divisions. Yet loosening the bottleneck could give some teams further to fall. As hard as it is to imagine them doing so, right now, the Pittsburgh Pirates only have to leapfrog five teams to get to the playoffs. It’s even harder to imagine them being able to leapfrog ten teams. But as Jeff Passan says, “It would be funny, however, to hear about the 15th-place Yankees.”
There’s no easy solution to that. In this proposal, the fifth playoff spot — which was itself a novelty just a few months ago, being presented as a second wild card spot — would become the aim of all the cellar-dwelling teams. But the prospect of a team finishing 15th could very well lead to pressure to create a sixth playoff team. And perhaps more. It’s hard to know where it stops. But once there are no more divisions, there will be no more good teams who stay home while worse teams advance in October: if a team misses the playoffs, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.
One would hope that cellar dwellers would be forced to innovate, rather than simply trying to spend their way out of it — one would hope that no 15th place team would ever try to buy its way out of the hole with bad contracts. It’s simply too far to climb. But a sustained run of stupidity, incompetence, and 15th-place finishes could attenuate a fanbase even more effectively than a sustained run of fifth- or sixth-place finishes. It’s a risk.
A year ago, because of problems like that, and because of the insanely complicated schedule that would need to be negotiated, I concluded that getting rid of all divisions simply wouldn’t be worth it. However, because of the arguments of Passan and others, I’ve come around to agree with Dave Cameron’s conclusion: “Do these costs outweigh the benefit of the increased fairness of a no-division plan where the best teams made the playoffs more often? I don’t think so.”