Baseball needs to put Yanks-Mets,
Cubs-White Sox in same divisions

          Posted: Monday, June 15, 2009

It's time for baseball to end the charade of separate American and National "leagues."

Every year of maintaining this paper distinction costs baseball a chance at regaining the crown of "America's Game" from the NFL.

Here is how the divisions should look. And no, we don't need any playoff wild cards:

  West   Midwest   Central   East
  L.A. Dodgers   St. Louis   Pittsburgh   N.Y. Yankees
  L.A. Angels   Kansas City   Cleveland   N.Y. Mets
  San Francisco   Chicago Cubs   Cincinnati   Boston
  Oakland   Chicago White Sox   Detroit   Philadelphia
  San Diego   Minnesota   Atlanta   Baltimore
  Arizona   Milwaukee   Florida   Washington
  Colorado   Houston   Tampa Bay   Toronto
  Seattle   Texas      

There is no reason the Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox, Orioles-Nationals, Dodgers-Angels, Marlins-Devil Rays and Rangers-Astros should not be in the same division. Some of these rivalries will attract greater interest than others, but baseball is clearly better served by the Dodgers, for example, playing more games against the Angels than the Pirates. And fans in Pittsburgh and Cleveland will relish the chance to compete on the diamond as well as the gridiron.

Purists — yes, they still exist and this writer was once one — maybe can't stomach the dissolution of the "leagues." They need to get over it. The concept of different leagues was damaged by the 1980s, wrecked in the 1990s. The only purpose it serves now is to maintain statistics and memories of those who fondly recall the baseball of earlier decades.

Business strategists might say the AL-NL concept was flawed from the start. You've got a league of teams, then you're going to create a rival league of teams in many of the same cities who will never play each other. So the Boston Braves didn't play the Red Sox, the Philadelphia A's didn't play the Phillies, the Chicago Cubs didn't play the White Sox, etc.

Most of those franchises eventually had to leave town to survive as a solo act somewhere else. Nevertheless, for nearly a century there was a charm in the separate identity of baseball. Different umpires, slightly different rules, different perceptions of play. The drawback is that Ted Williams never played at Wrigley Field and Willie Mays never played at Fenway. The advantage was a fierce rivalry extending not just into the World Series but the All-Star Game. Players were generally regarded as "American League players" or "National League players."

This dual identity withstood even the onset of free agency in the 1970s. Most free agents stayed in the same league as their original team, Reggie Jackson and Pete Rose being the greatest examples. A few big names, such as Dave Winfield, voluntarily switched leagues while in or near their prime, but there weren't many crossover players until the 1990s, when economics forced many teams to unload pricey stars for prospects before they left as free agents and returned nothing.

The separate-league concept could withstand that, but can't withstand interleague play. It no longer makes any sense. The Milwaukee Brewers have already been in both leagues. Even the SABRmetricians out there can't really justify how an "American League" player led the "American League" in something when several of the games were played in San Diego, San Francisco, Denver, etc. Meanwhile, fans who would regularly sell out parks for Giants-A's, Cubs-White Sox or Pirate-Indian games are being deprived the chance to do so, for no reason.

If baseball still refused to do interleague play, that would be fine with this purist. There are historical reasons for not doing it; there were decent reasons for doing it. One wishes baseball could've waited until 2001, after a complete century of two-league play (the World Series didn't start until 1903 and there was a Federal League along the way, but you get the idea), to make a massive change, and then do it not piecemeal as it is now but completely right.

One argument will be something about owners wary of TV agreements or perhaps some kind of contractual agreements to be the only team in that league in that market. That's minutiae.

Someday Bud Selig will step down as commissioner of baseball, and one likely replacement, depending on how his reputation is faring at the time, would be George W. Bush. Bush, to his credit, was the lone owner in 1993 to vote against realignment and the wild card. The wild card serves mostly to 1) create NFL-style playoff scenarios going into the final week that are ridiculous when applied to baseball and 2) allow at least one team in each "league" into the playoffs that really has no interest in being there. It also extends the season too long and dilutes the overall intensity of the playoffs, which are losing the battle with the NFL for October/November relevance. It's like making "The Godfather" a five-hour movie.

Bush, as the last holdout, could be a pioneering commissioner, scrapping this frustrating piecemeal operation of the present for a modern baseball world that will ignite sensational intra-city and intra-region rivalries. Until then, as always, baseball deserves the leadership it has.

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