Tom Verducci reported last week that Bud Selig’s special committee discussed “floating realignment,” adjusting divisions to promote competitive balance. Essentially, it would let MLB put a talented Blue Jays, Rays or Orioles team in the AL Central, rather than butting heads with the Red Sox and Yankees.
The scheme is scotch tape. Balance is unattainable without a salary cap. With the economic impetus the Yankees and Red Sox provide, it might not even be desirable. Instead of focusing on balance, why not inject competition?
Look at the NCAA tournament. All teams are not created equal. Maybe 10 can win the tournament, but fans of all 64 are invested, because they have attainable goals. Ohio won’t win the tournament, but their achievement was upsetting Georgetown. For another school, it could be making the Sweet 16 or the Elite Eight. Fans don’t need to believe their team can be the best. They need a tangible reason to care.
The English Premier League is enormously popular domestically. Fan bases are large and rabid. Even the English Championship (2nd Division), in terms of attendance, is the fourth biggest soccer league in Europe. The system has no parity. Since a benevolent Blackburn owner bought a title in 1995, only three teams have won it, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United.
Premier League clubs have vastly different capabilities and ceilings, but they also have attainable goals. Greatness for Arsenal would be winning the title. Greatness for Tottenham or Aston Villa would be finishing fourth and qualifying for the Champions League. For Fulham, it would be finishing in a Europa league place. For Wolves or Burnley, merely avoiding relegation would be memorable.
EPL teams have the pressure of achievement at the top and the pressure of relegation from below. Even lesser teams have incentives. Nearly every regular season game has meaning. You can’t say that about baseball.
Baseball has one goal, the World Series, or at least making the playoffs. There are no repercussions for losing. Teams such as the Pirates and Nationals begin the season knowing they can’t make the playoffs, so they don’t try. It becomes more important for the Nats to swindle Stephen Strasburg out of a year of service than to field the best possible team.
Because winning percentages are relatively low compared to other sports, most other teams know they’re out of contention by July. At that point results are irrelevant for more than half the league. A majority of teams are playing 70 to 80 pointless games. Indians fans aren’t tuning in or showing up to see if the Tribe can break 70 wins.
The purported pennant races in September seldom happen. The wild card kills at least one division race per year. Red Sox-Yankees games to decide the division in September are hyped as though they mean something when both teams, assured of making the playoffs, are resting players and setting up their pitching rotation.
Here’s a way to inject more spice into the regular season, realign the teams into two leagues MLB (I) and MLB (II). Have promotion and relegation. Broken into 16 and 14 teams based on last year’s results, here are the leagues.
MLB I: Yankees, Angels, Red Sox, Dodgers, Phillies, Rockies, Cardinals, Giants, Twins, Rangers, Marlins, Tigers, Braves, Mariners, Rays, Cubs.
MLB II: Brewers, Blue Jays, Orioles, White Sox, Indians, Royals, A’s, Mets, Nats, Reds, Astros, Pirates, Padres, Diamondbacks.
Have either a four or an eight team playoff with the top teams in MLB I for the World Series. Relegate the bottom three teams to MLB II. Promote the top three teams from MLB II to MLB I. Have the third and fourth place teams from MLB II playoff for the third spot, perhaps a one-off or a best of three.
MLB I would be more lucrative, but that’s the point. It gives incentive. Teams at the bottom of MLB I would be scrambling to stay in it, creating excitement at both ends. There would also be the promotion race in MLB II, with even the lowliest franchises gunning for those positions. Some teams would remain completely out of contention, but maybe it’s five to ten teams rather than 15-20
The Royals, the Nationals and the Pirates aren’t perpetually rebuilding. They are gunning for promotion to MLB I, a realistic goal that could energize fans.
It also would make the top of the league more exciting. The Yankees and Red Sox wouldn’t be as dominant, playing against better opponents. Instead of romping through Baltimore, they will play teams that can take 3 out of 4 from them at home. An off year for those teams isn’t 89 wins. It is flirting with relegation.
A reform like this would be radical and unlikely, but it would make the regular season more exciting. That may be necessary in coming decades.
Baseball is a pastoral sport built on tradition. Those traditions are becoming increasingly distant. I’m 26 years old. I’m a member of the last generation with a vague recollection of baseball as foul balls, reasonably priced bonding with Dad and a compelling television spectacle.
For those without pre-Internet memories, that romance is dead. Baseball is boring, time-consuming, expensive and, for those without the patience to religiously check stat sheets, increasingly inaccessible. What happens when they have the spending power?
Unless baseball seriously considers reforms to make the games themselves and the season more entertaining, it risks dying in the next 40 years along with its fan base.