I am no different.
My plan differs from the prominent ones, and it is not my personal ideal plan. If it were, I would eliminate the DH, contract two teams, halt interleague play and return baseball to the pre-1994 playoff format. However, I am a realistic person and understand that none of those things will happen (and probably for good reason). No, what I am doing here is trying to work within the existing system to come up with a solution that is palatable to the fans, Union, and MLB brass alike.
See also J-Doug's plan for MLB Realignment
Rectifying League Imbalance
The National League still has sixteen teams to the American League's fourteen, while the NL Central has six teams and the AL West four. This is to prevent season-long interleague play. Since interleague was a new concept at the time of the last expansion, and no one knew how it would work out in the long run, it was a wholly unacceptable proposition to play it all season. But interleague has proven to be a boon for baseball and it is here to stay.
That leaves three options to even out the leagues. The first is expansion to sixteen teams in each league. However, there are some legitimate concerns as to whether the logistics of such an expansion are feasible. Is there enough fan support? Where do you add these teams without infringing on other fan bases? In this economic climate how do you convince a municipality to build/renovate a stadium for their new team? The other solution is contraction. Anyone with a brain knows that the Union will never allow that to happen, so why suggest it? Plus, there is plenty of talent to go around.
The third, and best, course of action is to move a National League team to the American League. Each league will then have three divisions of five teams each. This leaves two issues: season long interleague and whom to move where. Personally, I would like to move the Diamondbacks to the AL West and the Houston Astros to the NL West. I favor that scenario because it doesn't infringe on any existing American League team's territories.
However, the move most suggested is the Astros to the AL West, creating an immediate rivalry with their in-state nemesis, the Texas Rangers. This could be a great move if the Rangers are okay sharing Texas with another American League team. Such a rivalry could be the perfect incentive to entice a team to switch leagues.
Interleague Play Everyday
As for the specter of constant interleague, I say we should embrace it rather than fight it. Sure, it was a scary proposition... fifteen years ago! Interleague has been good to baseball. Fans seem to love it. Owners certainly enjoy the improved attendance. This is why the MLB should throw their full marketing weight behind season long interleague play.
The way to do that is to give one game in each interleague series a national television audience. Currently, ESPN has national games on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday nights, Fox on Saturday afternoons, TBS on Sunday afternoons, and MLB Network on Thursday nights (and sometimes others). Why not take the Tuesday and Friday night interleague games and give them a national audience? Baseball could offer exclusive rights to all interleague games to sweeten the pot for prospective networks.
In fact, one channel is likely salivating at the opportunity to get a baseball contract: Versus (soon to rebranded as the NBC Sports Channel). Much like ESPN, they are a subsidiary of a large network station. Much like ESPN in the 1980's, they are building their network through non-mainstream sports virtually no one else televises, such as MMA, Lacrosse, Tour de France, IndyCar and several others. Now, they are looking to compete head to head with ESPN on bigger sports and could use the notoriety.
In fact, they already tried to pick up baseball when they were still known as OLN, losing out to ESPN. A baseball deal would be a huge feather in their cap, expanding their audience and generating instant credibility. Currently, ESPN's deal is worth $2.3 billion over eight seasons. This includes the rights to three games a week, plus mandatory SportsCenter highlights, plus rebroadcast rights on ESPN Classic. A Versus deal wouldn't draw quite that much, but it should easily clear $1 billion.
From what I understand, the root of the realignment discussion is Major League Baseball's intent to expand the Wild Card. Despite my initial reaction, I have warmed to the idea. I propose a one game playoff. Think about it, what are the two most exciting words in sports?
One game, winner take all; just try not to get excited about it. Now think about those rare instances when two teams play game 163 to determine who makes the postseason and who goes home. In essence they are skipping games 1-6 and going straight to the coveted seventh game. The stakes don't get much higher than that.
It will also prevent debacles like the Yankees and Rays not caring about winning the division last season. Under this new format, no one will voluntarily gamble their postseason birth on one game when they can play to win down the stretch and watch that game safely from the comfort of their own home. Every year fans will be treated to teams with an incentive to win the division as opposed to the Wild Card. Every year fans will witness high stakes, no holds barred games in each league to determine the Wild Card champion.
As for divisions themselves, the reality is that they are fan-friendly. Yes, they create an imbalanced schedule and may not be entirely fair, but baseball is better off with fans of an 82-win team enjoying a heated battle for the division--plus two other divisions and the Wild Card fighting for the pennant--rather than top-five approach of the NBA style postseason. Wheres the drama in that? No one is going to hang a banner saying they finished #4 in the National League. You do see banners for Wild Card winners. Fans eat that up. Its not a wise idea to eliminate that. Sorry, Mr. Neyer, the divisions aren't going anywhere.
MLB is walking a fine line here, though. I think this plan can be very successful for Major League Baseball. However, they need to seriously consider the ramifications of such a move. I implore them not to create a Wild Card round any longer than a single game as I believe it will ultimately do more harm than good. The season is six months long before the postseason starts, driving even ardent baseball fans to other sports.
I firmly believe in the concept of "always leaving them wanting more." Much better to leave the fans itching for more baseball, than to have them exhausted and tired of baseball at the season's end. So please, Mr. Commissioner, I ask you to keep this in mind and do the right thing.
So there you have it, a reasonable solution for MLB playoff expansion. Owners get more playoff teams, the fan-friendly divisional format is maintained, the postseason doesn't drag into November, the leagues achieve balance and MLB gets a fat new television contract out of it all.
All in a day's work. In my next post I will fix the economy, tackle global climate change and end American dependence on foreign oil.
Image credit: Wikipedia