The Nightmare Of Perpetual Inter-League Play
Buster Olney of ESPN.Com has just posted a very good piece about a story I first heard a week ago, one that could shatter the concepts of the American and National Leagues as we know them.
As I heard it, the Bud Selig-driven committee investigating realignment was spending most of its time discussing moving one team from the National League into the American League to create two 15-team leagues. The obvious implication of those odd numbers is that from the first day of the season to the last, there would always be at least one inter-league game being played, every day – from the first celebratory week, to the final climactic days of the pennant race.
What a bunch of crap.
Olney’s sources apparently divined this scheme after the Commissioner’s group began preliminary discussions about it with the union. I had merely heard about it during its owners-only stage. His additional details include the suggestion that the 16th NL team switching to the AL might be the Astros (to give them an all-Texas rivalry with the Rangers; in fact the Marlins and Rays could probably better use this benefit), the possibility that divisions would be eliminated altogether and each league’s 15 teams would simply vie for five playoff spots (hey, great, more crap – your opportunity to buy tickets to see a 13th-place team, or, if you’re really lucky – a battle between both 13th-place teams!).
The divisional system introduced in 1969 is troublesome enough – it broke the tradition that the pennant race really determined the best team, because each team played every other team the same number of times. But it became necessary once the leagues got beyond 10 teams, for the reasons hinted at above. In the 1890’s, when the National League stomped out both the upstart Players’ League, and then its former rival the American Association, major league baseball became one league of 12 teams. Hope dies early in a 12-team league. On this date in 1899 – June 11 – ten of the twelve teams were 8-and-a-half games out or more. Last place Cleveland was already 26 games out of first place and would end the year a whopping 84 games behind the pennant winner.
The divisions are a necessary evil, but inter-league play is an unnecessary one, and making it a virtually daily part of the menu would make a joke out of the pennant races. As it is now, how you do in inter-league pretty much determines whether or not you’ll win anything. And how you do in inter-league pretty much depends on who you play in inter-league. And who you play in inter-league pretty much is determined by which match-up will draw the most fans or the most tv viewers.
When Selig rammed inter-league play through in 1997, it still wore a fig-leaf that at least within divisions, each team would have the same inter-league opponents. The A.L. East would play the N.L. East one year, then the N.L. Central the next, then the N.L. West the third. This was abandoned as soon as the fervor swelled around Mets-Yankees, Giants-A’s, White Sox-Cubs, Dodgers-Angels, etc.
Right now inter-league opponents are selected for marketing reasons, and give some teams decided advantages over rivals in their own divisions. This new proposed system could make that disparity even greater. Unless there is some intention to reduce or scatter the current twice-yearly Festivuses of inter-league (and when has baseball ever reduced anything?) in a roughly 26-week schedule with approximately 52 “series” a year, each team in a 15-team league would probably go from playing six inter-league series a year to as many as eight or nine. By definition, some teams would get an easier schedule than others. By definition, the likelihood that the World Series teams would’ve met during the regular season increases – further flattening the bubbles in that champagne.
Inter-league has been interesting and novel in some cases (Yankees-Mets was thrilling, then interesting, and is now routine) but it has adversely affected what the pennant races mean, and it has been a nightmare for National League teams used to defending against eight-man batting orders. Just as it’s time for the concept to be discontinued or reduced, MLB is – naturally – looking to increase it.
Why not just give the teams with the top national tv ratings a first-round playoff bye?