Do you think Bud Selig is trying to contain a smile or a wry chuckle right now? He can’t show happiness over reports MLB is considering a version of his ’90s radical realignment plan because the coronavirus pandemic is the reason it’s being discussed. But he still can feel slight satisfaction that baseball may be adapting and, perhaps, adopting his idea.
Imagine how giddy he’d look, though, if this potential modern realignment, coupled with expanded playoffs — something else that’s being discussed — is a hit within baseball and becomes permanent?
Let’s go through some of the reasons this plan makes sense as more than just a one-year wonder:
Selig’s 1997 proposal, introduced as part of negotiations related to the 1998 expansion, included four regional divisions rather than the three reportedly being discussed now, but the team groupings were largely the same. Local rivals separated by league — Yankees and Mets, Dodgers and Angels, Cubs and White Sox, and so on — would have become division rivals then, and they would become division rivals now.
Those matchups are the main attractions of interleague play, another Selig-backed innovation. Upgrading them to division games would add tons of heat, especially in a year when the New York, LA and Chicago teams all have eyes on the playoffs. Subway Series to decide a division winner? Fans would take that.
Based on the hypothetical realignment told to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale on Tuesday, not only would the Subway, Freeway, Windy City and other regional series become more meaningful, but baseball could also have these division races in 2020:
Yes, the Astros and Dodgers would be division rivals again after 27 years, which means they’d see enough of each other in the proposed 100 or 110-game regular season for LA to settle scores over 2017.
This argument makes more sense in the short term. Seeing powerful teams from different divisions thrown together for an abbreviated season is a wonderful novelty. If these three divisions become the norm, then teams will inevitably separate and the races will just become . . . races.
More playoffs, but not too much more
With three 10-team divisions, there has to be a leaguewide playoff format rather than a division-based setup. The field could remain at 10, but that would require, say, giving first-round byes to the division winners and three wild-card teams. The six division winners receive byes now, but realignment should ensure that teams still have an incentive to finish first.
The better play is to add teams; MLB can use the rationale this year that a shorter regular season won’t allow for proper separation among teams. What about a 12-team field, then, with the division winners and the top wild-card team getting byes into the second round and the other eight clubs matched up in four wild-card games? No team wants to play a one-game series if it can avoid it.
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There’s a lot for people in the game to like about all of this long term: potentially less travel, more intense rivalries, extra playoff teams. Downsides? Maybe the schedule wouldn’t work over a full season. What else, realistically?
Throw out fans’ reactions. Most of them just want baseball, whatever the format. Some will find reasons to moan: the end of century-old league traditions, probably a universal DH, allowing mediocre clubs into the playoffs. People moan about everything, but, hey, at least they care.
The 2020 MLB season is becoming as much of a research project as a sporting competition. Now would be the time to test whether Selig was on to something. When the owners and players compare notes in CBA negotiations afterward, they ought to agree that it’s good business to embrace at least some of the changes.
Reported MLB division realignment plan
EAST: Orioles, Red Sox, Marlins, Mets, Yankees, Phillies, Pirates, Rays, Blue Jays, Nationals.
CENTRAL: Braves, Cubs, White Sox, Reds, Indians, Tigers, Royals, Brewers, Twins, Cardinals.
WEST: Diamondbacks, Rockies, Astros, Angels, Dodgers, Athletics, Padres, Giants, Mariners, Rangers.