Anybody else remember when 162 games yielded one winner, the World Series always pitted each league’s best teams, and baseball’s post-season was unlike that of other sports?
Those days seem ancient; we have descended a long way toward baseball resembling all other pro sports, specifically in this way: a third of all teams now qualify for the post-season. These days you need to just be better than average, not great, to be playing in October, and lucky enough to survive several short series, not necessarily dominant, to reach the World Series.
As we open another season, we have yet another “innovation”: everyday interleague play, necessitated by the thoroughly unexciting move of the Houston Astros to the American League (did any of you notice?) that has created an equal, but odd, number of teams in each league. The traditional “opener” in Cincinnati (not usually the actual opener anymore, and not this year either, since we were treated to a Texas-Houston game on Easter night) has the National League Reds hosting the American League Angels.
Besides my purist objection to interleague play, it remains ridiculously unfair. Baseball insists on keeping the sexy intercity rivalries year after year, skewing schedules and annually giving teams like the Yankees and the White Sox an extra advantage (they get to play a half-dozen games against the Mets and Cubs, respectively).
Even if you think interleague games are fun (an A’s/Giants series is certainly good for baseball in the Bay Area), Detroit gets the short end of the stick by being matched against teams for which there is no affinity nor traditional rivalry. Furthermore, with this year’s newest twist, it’s gone from the decidedly non-sublime to the ridiculous. What can match the thrill and drawing power of this season’s Memorial Day matchup with Pittsburgh, the late-August home stand in which the Phillies and Nationals come to town, and especially that season-ending trip to…Miami? Are you kidding me?
I mean, imagine the potential drama of a tight Central Division race in the last weekend of September as the rival White Sox and Royals face each other while the Tigers get to punch out the season against the Marlins.
The new season-long interleague schedule will lead inevitably to two things: the imposition of the designated hitter on the National League and the sure final erosion of the two leagues until all that remains is a distinction in name only, like the NFC and AFC in pro football. I mean, if the only purpose of the schedule is to maximize revenue by having as many Yankees/Red Sox and Dodgers/Angels game as possible, and if the best teams in each league only meet in the World Series by happenstance, why tolerate the quaint notion of two leagues at all?
The Tigers also have gotten the financial shaft ever since the three-division realignment, being limited to only one home series a year against traditional rivals Boston and New York (and Baltimore and Toronto, with whom there are also longstanding rivalries). Having to play 18 games a year against the Royals and Twins has not exactly been mesmerizing. And packing so many intra-divisional games into the schedule doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when winning the division only gets you into a five-game playoff series you might not survive if you’re in a short team slump or your ace has a bad outing.
If I were the commissioner, I’d scrap the whole nonsense and go back to a system that would make the long, grueling schedule as meaningful as it used to be. Add two franchises (San Juan and Mexico City?) and go back to two eight-team divisions in each league. The division winners could play a seven-game playoff series. To add a little spice and extra revenue, the World Series could be a best-of-nine, with the last three games played at a neutral site in a Super Bowl-type atmosphere.
Want more modern touches while returning to essential tradition? Here’s a crazy idea: Seed the sixteen teams with the best remaining records in a one-game elimination March madness-style post-season tournament, with the winner getting the #1 pick in the following year’s draft. That would be a prize teams would find worth fighting for down to the wire.
And if you still had to have a few interleague games, I guess I could stand it. We dinosaurs have to stop stomping around eventually.