Well, it’s very nice to know Commissioner Bud Selig is hard at work, trying to get some handle on how to dilute the World Series even further by adding even more playoff teams, with the subject planned for this week’s winter meetings.
Here in the real world, we know that the more you dilute the process, the worse it becomes and the more irrelevant regular seasons and even early playoff rounds become. Before long even the World Series becomes irrelevant—who thinks a champion should have a losing record in the regular season? Remember the 1973 Mets, who made it with a near-.500 record? It turned out to be a good series, but it was oh-so-close to being awful.
Wait! Maybe we could have a 162-game playoff season, beginning in April; mix it up, let the teams play each other in weekly series, with the overall record of the teams, over several months, being used as eliminators. Then, the two best teams meet in the final—oh, yeah…hmmm…that’s the old way of doing it, isn’t it?
Well, in the spirit of invention, here’s a solution that actually brings regional rooting interest back, keeps the leagues just big enough to have clear races and also provides enough true champions to maintain interest. How, you ask? Glad to tell you.
First, we need to go back to two ideas that worked for decades, until expansion in 1961-62 intervened—154-game seasons and eight-team leagues.
No, I’m not suggesting contraction—quite the opposite. I’m proposing expansion, from 30 to 32 teams. In the process, we’ll create four more-or-less regional leagues, with some traditional rivalries. We’ll keep the American League and National League names, and add to them two classic baseball league names, advanced to the big stage: the Southern League and the Pacific Coast League.
Here’s the new American League, composed of teams traditionally associated with the league:
New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, and Baltimore Orioles. These names are listed in the order they would have finished this past season, all things being equal. (Which they wouldn’t have been, of course, since the teams didn’t face just each other over 154 games, but let’s go with it instead of doing all that math, shall we?)
The National League, likewise, consists mainly of the traditional cities, if not all the traditional franchises:
Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Both the American and National Leagues in this scenario cover the East Coast and the Midwest; if we want to get very radical, of course, these two could be split more regionally:
American League: New York Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians.
National League: Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds.
The Southern League, in this new construction, has the Sun Belt teams and the two expansion teams, simply for argument’s sake. I’ve chosen these teams for some pretty arbitrary (read, random) reasons, but logically, this is the region where expansion will likely occur, if and when:
Tampa Bay Rays, Miami Marlins, Atlanta Braves, Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, Indianapolis Aces and San Juan Sugar Kings.
The Pacific Coast League is composed of teams in cities that—you guessed it—traditionally fought for titles in the West’s grand old league:
Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Seattle Mariners.
There are two reasons to go with the eight-team format. One is that it has been proven that eight teams can make a shorter season work; the 154-game season is ideal for this size league. Additionally, in an era when transportation issues make travel more and more expensive, cutting back to traditional rivalries and regions makes solid economic sense (even more so if we completely realign the AL and NL).
But what about interleague play, you ask? Well, what about it? It could go away, of course (wishful thinking), but since all revenue streams must be explored in Seligland, a way for it to work would be to rotate inter-league games every year. AL vs. NL, SL vs. PCL, then AL vs. SL, NL vs. PCL, etc. Eventually, all teams would play in all cities. But, to keep the integrity of the leagues intact, the inter-league statistics should be kept separate, used to determine home-field advantages, seeding, etc. in the playoffs.
Here’s another thought for the inter-league series as well: The team with the best record could represent America in the World Baseball Classic—an honor, to be sure, and something to make the win-loss record count for something. (Of course, some of the players may be siphoned off to play for other nations, so positions would have to be filled in some cases by other players.)
So what about the playoffs? Well, we’d have four certain participants: the four league champions. Then, let’s take the second place finishers—no wild card winners in this bunch—and then let’s go three-deep, to 12 teams! The second and third-place teams in each league play each other, with the pennant winners earning a first-round bye.
The winners of the first round then take on the first-place teams for the right to go to the championship round, which would pit the champion team with the best inter-league record against the champion with the worst inter-league record; and then the teams with the second- and third-best records facing each other.
The winners of these two rounds would then, of course, meet in the World Series.
This structure gives the league winner a slightly-better-than-average chance to advance to the World Series yet gives eight other good teams an opportunity to shine in playoff action.
So how would it have worked this year? Well, the AL champion would have been the Yankees, with the Twins and Red Sox vying for the opportunity to play the Yankees in the second round. In the NL, the Phillies would have taken the title, with the Reds and Cardinals (the only other above-.500 teams) battling to continue. In the SL, we would have had the Rays winning, with the Braves and Rangers fighting each other to face Tampa Bay. And in the PCL, the Giants would have won the pennant; the Padres and Rockies would have challenged each other to advance.
We would have had a spirited American League race, with five teams over .500. The Red Sox-White Sox battle would have garnered a lot of headlines, but the Twins-Yankees battle for the pennant would also have been a doozy. The National League would have been a snoozefest: only three teams were above .500, with significant distance between them. Likewise with the Southern League, though the Braves did do well early and might have made this interesting. In the PCL, we would have had the same battle we had in the NL West, though the Athletics might have kept it interesting.
We would have seen the Red Sox, Rockies and Cardinals added to the playoffs—without concocting some bogus wild-card series to justify it. When three of your four or five teams in a division make the playoffs, you’ve got a legitimacy problem; when the second- and third-place teams (out of eight) play to meet the top team, it’s a little more legitimate, or at least a little less cheesy.
So how does the All-Star game fit? Frankly, I don’t know. Perhaps it could rotate pairings and locations mirroring interleague games, which then would be inserted just before the All-Star break. And yes, these interleague games would equal eight, making the season 162 games total (154 league games, eight interleague that would not count in the standings).
To take the realignment idea further, each league should have its minor league teams in or close to its major league region, and playing only the minor league teams affiliated with their league competitors. This would create even more regional identity, top to bottom, while cutting minor league travel costs and affiliate costs. Most of the current minor leagues could be adjusted to make this work, but some restructuring would have to occur. The plusses would outweigh the negatives, however.
So there you have it. Interleague play? Check. Expanded playoffs? Check. Regional rivalries? Check. Reward for winning the league’s pennant? Check. Expenses curtailed? Again, check, especially when the minor league component is added. Costs down, profits up, interest pumped.
It could be a winner.