A View from Studio 3: It's time to align by geography
As AL and NL become indistinguishable, MLB should adjust divisions
What's the difference between the American League and the National League?
It's not a riddle, so if you're waiting for a clever answer or some type of punch line, you'll be disappointed, and you'll be waiting a long time.
I heard a kid ask his father that question a few weeks ago. Dad had no real answer -- for good reason. The dividing line between leagues is fading. It's almost gone.
Remember the days when you could identify an AL team or NL club based on its overall look or style?
If memory serves, NL teams had the smaller, wirey types. Able to bunt, steal and climb outfield walls. AL rosters were filled with big bruisers, the kind of guys you'd want on your weekend softball team.
Think back to the 1982 World Series. Harvey's Wallbangers versus The White Rat's Cardinals. If there was ever better example of two clubs with more opposite looks and personalities, I can't think of it. Harvey Kuenn's Brewers led the Majors in homers and they stole a base from time to time. Whitey Herzog's Cardinals were dead last in long balls while leading the NL in steals. When the two teams faced off, the Fall Classic was must-see TV.
That's an extreme example of what used to be, and of course there were exceptions. But there's no denying that once upon a time, the AL style and NL style were decidedly different.
Decades have passed and the gap has closed -- or disappeared -- in many catergories for many reasons. Parks are smaller, players are more athletic, philosophies changed, statistical analysis has exploded and money talks. Players have no reservations about switching leagues in free agency. The list goes on and on.
One thing that has remained the same over the decades is the designated hitter. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the best/worst baseball has to offer, recent conversations and debates lead some to believe the DH will find its way into the NL, and soon.
Good idea? Bad idea? It doesn't matter. If it happens, there will be no difference between the leagues at all. The only reason to categorize teams based on league will be for standings purposes. Heck, we have Interleague Play every day this season, so fans don't even mark their calendars anymore looking forward to the handful off weekends when an AL team comes to their NL city.
And what do the records mean? "The all-time NL leader in [pick a category]" hasn't worked for years. Until you separate out every Interleague game, its validity is sketchy at best.
So lets just go with it. Assume the DH arrives in the NL soon, that's the perfect time to implement an idea that conforms with the changing MLB landscape while creating a new twist on geographic rivalries from coast to coast.
Do away with the AL and NL as they currently exist.
Yup. Realign the leagues based solely on geography. Think Eastern Conference and Western Conference in the NBA or NHL. What's more compelling? The Angels and Dodgers playing for bragging rights on a random weekend in May and August or having these teams face each other in the final week of the September with the top seed in the postseason on the line?
How about the Cubs having a chance to keep the White Sox out of the playoffs in a head-to-head meeting October 1-3?
You get it.
In the past 20 years, we've already had realignment, playoff expansion and added divisions, so why not?
The vast majority of existing rivalries would barely be affected by this new plan. Just about every heated rivalry that has any teeth or any history is based on geography, so those teams would continue to spew hate and draw large crowds more than a dozen times a year. It's all good (as the kids like to say).
Plus, new rivalries would be created and travel would also be made much easier if you split the country down the middle. Break up the 30 clubs into two conferences and then seed accordingly for the playoffs. Just as the current schedule dictates, the majority of a team's games would take place within its conference.
Here's a starting point:
New York Mets
New York Yankees
Los Angeles Dodgers
Los Angeles Angels
Chicago White Sox
Think about it: MLB has done an incredible job of creating and sustaining competitive balance in recent years. Perhaps it is time to explore geographic balance as well. While this idea may sound crazy, remember, many fans felt the same way about the designated hitter 40 years ago.