A history of realignment

There’s a new website and magazine out called Gotham Baseball, which focuses on the past, present and future (as in minor leagues) of the grand ol’ game in the Big Apple. In his column on Sunday, Mark Healey proposed radical realignment of the game and asked for feedback. I responded in brief on the site’s forum, but it got me thinking to the point where I couldn’t fit everything into a message board post.

That term — “radical realignment” — has come up before, particularly in 1997. That’s when Bud Selig, if you recall, wanted to make baseball’s divisions geographical. He would’ve put the Mets and Yankees in the same division, for instance, as well as the Cubs and White Sox, Dodgers and Angels, Giants and A’s and Rangers and Astros. The American League — if it kept that name — would’ve had all 14 of its teams in the Eastern time zone.

But before we get to that, I wanted to go back and look at the history of baseball’s alignment, at least since it split into divisions with the 1969 expansion (such teams are denoted by italics throughout this essay).

The original divisions:

NL East
Cubs
Expos
Mets
Phillies
Pirates
Cardinals

NL West
Braves
Reds
Astros
Dodgers
Padres
Giants

AL East
Orioles
Red Sox
Indians
Tigers
Yankees
Senators

AL West
Angels
White Sox
Royals
Twins
A’s
Pilots

The NL remained unchanged until 1993, while the AL saw the Pilots move from Seattle to Milwaukee (and become the Brewers) in 1970. In 1972, the Senators moved from Washington to Texas (becoming the Rangers) and the Brewers went from the West Division to the East. And then the AL expanded again in 1977:

AL East
Orioles
Red Sox
Indians
Tigers
Brewers
Yankees
Blue Jays

AL West
Angels
White Sox
Royals
Twins
A’s
Mariners
Rangers

Nothing changed — other than the League Championship Series, which went from best-of-five affairs to best-of-seven in 1986 — for 16 years. That brings us to 1993, a year that I think should now be considered as other years of significant changes are. There was 1920, when Babe Ruth led the majors with 54 home runs, 25 more than anyone had hit, ever (that was Ruth himself, in 1919). There was 1961, commonly referred to as the start of “the expansion era.” There was 1969, the year after Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA prompted the lowering of the pitcher’s mound from 15 inches to 10. There was 1973, the year the designated hitter was created.

And there was 1993. First, baseball came to Denver. Second, Camden Yards entered its second year after such a stellar inaugural season that it ushered in the “retro” — read “smaller” — ballpark trend. Third, in all likelihood, 1993 marked the year baseball expanded beyond its competitive capabilities. A fourth potential watershed moment for ’93 is the earliest days of the steroid era because it wasn’t long after this that, in hindsight, we see the numbers really got out of whack.

So the NL divisions in 1993 looked like this:

NL East
Cubs
Marlins
Expos
Mets
Phillies
Pirates
Cardinals

NL West
Braves
Reds
Rockies
Astros
Dodgers
Padres
Giants

That ’93 expansion, of course, was set several years earlier. So while that was already laid out, in 1992 commissioner Fay Vincent proposed realignment. His intention to essentially trade the Cubs and Cardinals from the NL East to the West in exchange for the Braves and Reds, would’ve made the divisions look like this in 1993:

NL East
Braves
Reds
Marlins
Expos
Mets
Phillies
Pirates

NL West
Cubs
Rockies
Astros
Dodgers
Cardinals
Padres
Giants

After ousting Vincent and installing one of their own as a figurehead, the owners went ahead with realignment on their own. This plan went through for two reasons. One was that the owners came up with it themselves and therefore liked it better because they weren’t being told what to do (and the Cubs and Cardinals weren’t losing 6 or 7 p.m. game times by playing so many teams in the Mountain or Pacific time zones). The other was that it created two more playoff teams in each league and another round of postseason games off of which the owners would make more money:

NL East
Braves
Marlins
Expos
Mets
Phillies

NL Central
Cubs
Reds
Astros
Pirates
Cardinals

NL West
Rockies
Dodgers
Padres
Giants

AL East
Orioles
Red Sox
Tigers
Yankees
Blue Jays

AL Central
White Sox
Indians
Royals
Brewers
Twins

AL West
Angels
A’s
Mariners
Rangers

In researching this post, I found an article from the June 24, 1993, edition of USA Today that applied this 1995 realignment from 1977. It reported:

The 1987 Minnesota Twins, who won the World Series, would not have made the playoffs, even as a wild card. …
The Mets, Dodgers and Blue Jays would’ve been October regulars. New York would have won six consecutive NL East titles (1984-89), with a wild card in ’90. Los Angeles would have dominated the weak NL West, taking 10 titles in the 15 years (not counting the ’81 strike season, when they won the Series). Toronto would have made the playoffs seven of the last nine years. …
The 1978 and ’84 Kansas City Royals – both AL West champions – would not have made the playoffs. …
Montreal wouldn’t have won a division but would have made three wild-card appearances. …
The Yankees and Red Sox would still have played off for the 1978 American League East title. But Bucky Dent’s home run wouldn’t have been as memorable. The loser of the game would have been guaranteed a wild-card spot.

Then we were saddled with the dumbest expansion ever (Tampa Bay makes it so on its own), necessitating a move of the Brewers from the AL to the NL and the Tigers from the AL East to the AL Central and leaving us with:

NL East
Braves
Marlins
Expos
Mets
Phillies

NL Central
Cubs
Reds
Astros
Brewers
Pirates
Cardinals

NL West
Diamondbacks
Rockies
Dodgers
Padres
Giants

AL East
Orioles
Red Sox
Yankees
Devil Rays
Blue Jays

AL Central
White Sox
Indians
Tigers
Royals
Brewers
Twins

AL West
Angels
A’s
Mariners
Rangers

Thankfully, there’s been little movement since, but the Expos’ move from Montreal to Washington didn’t alter the divisions and certainly made the game stronger. Now if Bud had gotten his way in ’97, we would’ve been left with this mess (though the division names weren’t discussed):

AL Division A
Orioles
Red Sox
Expos/Nationals
Mets
Yankees
Phillies
Blue Jays

AL Division B
Braves
Reds
Indians
Tigers
Marlins
Pirates
Devil Rays

NL “Central”
Cubs
White Sox
Astros
Royals
Brewers
Twins
Cardinals
Rangers

NL “West”
Angels
Diamondbacks
Rockies
Dodgers
A’s
Padres
Giants
Mariners

This plan would’ve also instituted the designated hitter in both leagues — which might not have been named the American and National leagues — as well as two wild cards in each one. When that didn’t fly because so many teams were against switching leagues or competing in the same division with the Yankees (as the Mets were), it was scaled back to this:

Under the moderate realignment plan, this is how baseball would look (each division is expected to be broken down into two subdivisions, which would produce four playoff teams in each league and eliminate the need for the current wild card):
AL Division A
Orioles
Red Sox
Marlins
Yankees
Astros OR Royals
Rangers OR Devil Rays

AL Division B
White Sox
Indians
Tigers
Twins
Expos/Nationals
Devil Rays OR Rangers

NL Division A
Braves
Cubs
Reds
Royals OR Astros
Brewers
Pirates
Cardinals

NL Division B
Angels
Diamondbacks
Rockies
Dodgers
A’s
Padres
Giants
Mariners

This plan would’ve also included “sub-divisions” within each grouping, somehow maintaining four playoff teams in each league (I don’t know how that would’ve worked, because it’s not like they could have two three-team divisions in those AL alignments). The NL would’ve remained DH-free and the AL would’ve kept it. It also would’ve put the Canadian teams together, which may have eventually saved baseball in the Great White North, but that’s still unlikely.

As for Healey’s plan (you know, that link way up at the top of this post), what bothers me most is that it takes away any regional rivalries for the Mets (no Phillies or Nationals) and splits up the Cubs and Cardinals, which would be like splitting up the Yankees and Red Sox. I also don’t like keeping the Devil Rays and moving the Marlins. The fans aren’t the problem in Miami, it’s the owners. When the team wins, the fans show up. In St. Petersburg, a hideous ballpark combined with owners who won’t spend any money mean there’s no reason for anyone to become a Devil Rays fan, particularly when so many people in the area latch onto the Yankees, who train across the causeway in Tampa. (Or they’ve moved there from New York to begin with.)

I also don’t think baseball could handle another expansion — if you’ve been to a minor-league game lately, you’ve seen that there are maybe one or two studs per team, no matter what the level. Of course, there are some with four or five top prospects, but every team has guys who can barely hit their weight — and some of these guys have a hard time tipping the scales above 180. There might be enough talent out there to fill two more 25-man rosters with major-league caliber players, but there certainly isn’t enough for two more 40-man rosters, or two more entire farm systems. But if baseball were to expand, it could then do away with the DH. I’m sure the players’ union would concede 14 hired hitters in exchange for 50 new job openings. Las Vegas and Charlotte might be able to support a major-league team long-term, but I don’t think Portland would. Mexico City would probably be a better choice.

I question, too, just how well four-team divisions would work in baseball. It’s such a long season that the best teams will usually work their way to the top before long. A 162-game schedule, no matter what a manager or player might say, provides for some meaningless games. Or, at least, some games that matter much more than others. The long schedule provides for, and necessitates, that some players take a day off. Over a six-month season, the teams at the bottom of the four-team divisions could be 50 games out. The Mets could clinch by the trading deadline and the Devil Rays would be mathmatically eliminated by the Fourth of July. While fans will talk about parity in the NFL, how much of that is the result of a 16-game schedule? If there were a way for the league to play 32 or 60 football games a season, you’d have a much better chance of the best teams always coming out on top. There’s a reason you don’t see the likes of Brett Favre or LaDanian Tomlinson taking a day off, and it has everything to do with the short schedule and the need to win every game.

Baseball should stick with what it has now. There’s no need to mess with it anymore. But the word “contraction” will come up again (it’s written into the collective bargaining agreement only that MLB wouldn’t look into it for a certain period of time), and that could lead to something bigger churning in the mind of Bud. Let’s hope it’s only that he contracts himself from the league’s executive offices when his term expires.

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