MLB Realignment: Why Interleague Play Every Day Would Work

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IMay 23, 2011

BOSTON, MA - MAY 22:  Dustin Pedroia #15 of the Boston Red Sox turns the double play as Alfonso Soriano #12 of the Chicago Cubs is out at second in the third inning on May 22, 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  Before this series, the two teams haven't played at Fenway Park since the 1918 World Series.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

The Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox had not faced off at Fenway Park in 93 years before their game against one another Friday night. The 1918 World Series, which the Red Sox won, had been the last occasion to bring the two together there.

They played three rather sloppy games but had time to just barely strike the match of a rivalry before time swept them apart for another three to five years.

As it happens, interleague play brought them to Boston during a time at which a good deal of general speculation is going on. The future of baseball is bright enough but is uncertain as ever. The current collective bargaining agreement between management and the MLB Players Association expires after this season, so many of the rules of the game could change over the coming months.

A new layer of playoffs may be added. Service time rules vis-a-vis salary arbitration may change drastically. The very landscape of the game may be in limbo, so naturally there have been some off-the-wall theories and proposals floated out there of late.

Here is one, though, that Bob Costas first proposed over a decade ago but which few (if anyone) have taken seriously until now: It may be time to realign baseball's divisions and league format.

Until 1961, both the American and National Leagues had fielded exactly eight teams for nearly a half century. That year, the AL expanded to 10 clubs by replacing the recently departed Senators in Washington and by adding the Los Angeles Angels to their ranks. In 1962, the NL matched that move by restoring a National League presence to New York and fielding a new team in Houston.

The two leagues expanded in lockstep in 1969, with the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos joining the NL while the Seattle Pilots (soon the Milwaukee Brewers) and Kansas City Royals joined the AL. Both circuits had thus expanded to 12 teams.

Thereafter, though, things quickly swung out of balance. The implementation of the designated hitter deepened divisions between the two leagues. In 1977, the AL added two more franchises in Seattle and Toronto, with no corresponding moves from the senior circuit. As a result of that numerical imbalance, a competitive one emerged.

The National League ruled the baseball world from 1977-93. Quality of play, attendance, television ratings and overall revenue all were higher among NL teams. The franchises of that league were, generally speaking, more conservative, but also more established, more storied and richer.

The two leagues were functionally separate entities and acted accordingly, with NL leadership consistently balking at expansion or profiteering maneuvers while AL executives embraced them. Fans also demonstrated a preference for the more aggressive style of play in the NL.

In 1993, the NL finally bent to the whims of an aggressive expansion economy. Denver and Miami got expansion franchises, bringing the two leagues back to equilibrium. Each league had 14 franchises, and after the conglomeration of the league offices under commissioner Bud Selig, the leagues seemed closer than ever to renewing competitive parity.

However, the homeostasis did not last. The DH, which many had thought gravely endangered at the time of the 1993 expansion, did not go away. Nor did it reach the NL. After the 1994 strike, the leagues again drifted apart, even as NL and AL teams came into ever more direct competition for talent. By 1998, another expansion was due, and it came as a violent shakeup of the map once again.

Phoenix and Tampa Bay got franchises this time around, one side each deposited into the NL and AL. But because the league was wary of overexposing the novelty of interleague play, the Brewers moved to the NL, leaving the senior circuit with 16 teams against 14 for the AL.

Since then, the AL has been the preeminent league. It has not been close. It seems clear, now, that whichever league has fewer teams will inevitably be stronger. That may not make sense on its surface; after all, baseball has been an increasingly homogenized product over the past two decades. Each side plays a similar style of baseball, at least in aggregate, and each has equal access to free agents, both amateur and professional.

But it has been so for over three decades, and logically, it does make some sense: The smaller circuit is the more efficient one. The more the two operate as distinct and closed loops (and right now, interleague play accounts for only about 9.7 percent of NL games and 11.1 percent of AL games), the more that disparity matters.

Fewer bad players can survive there because there are simply fewer places to play. Teams play each other more often and therefore are spread less thin in terms of advance scouting and travel.

The only way to make the game fair and balanced again is to eliminate the competitive gulf between the leagues, and the only way to do that is to restore the former condition in which both leagues field the same number of squads. If there were 15 teams on each side of the ledger, of course, there would need to be at least one interleague series every weekend.

But would that truly be a problem? Would it be such a bad thing if the Cubs and Red Sox played three games against one another every year, rather than twice per decade? 

Obviously, the answer is no. In fact, many interleague matchups would be much more enjoyable if they were not forced down fans' throats as something more than they really are. No one wants to see the Padres play the Indians amid inflated hype, but as a pedestrian series in late July, that series is much less offensive.

Making interleague play a yearlong and league-wide phenomenon would both foment competitive balance and even out some injustices inherent to the current interleague model.

As it stands, for instance, the Cubs and White Sox play six games per season, while the Cardinals and Royals square off six times. For the past 10 years, that has been unfair to the Cubs. For the next 10, it is likely to be unfair to the Cardinals. In any event, though, if the Cubs also played the Royals three times and the Cardinals played the Sox three times, the schedule would be much more equitable.

Perhaps even more important than creating balance between the leagues is that the logistics might be tricky. When Costas originally set forth this idea, he suggested the Astros be moved from the overloaded NL Central to the more intuitive fit, the AL West. Their natural rivalry with the Texas Rangers would grow into one of the game's best in that scenario, and the leagues would finally be in balance.

Unfortunately, the Astros organization is a baseball leper colony right now. Their big-league team is bad, their farm system is awful and falling attendance has left the team much worse off in terms of rebuilding than it might be under normal circumstances. The American League is not likely to appreciate having the team dumped into its lap.

The Colorado Rockies, though, fit the mold. They are an attractive team, but one that has not laid down substantial roots in the National League. They have no especially rigid rivalries and seem almost out of place in the NL. If they moved to the AL West, the Astros could make a much less radical lateral move to the NL West.

This plan would provide an impetus for (finally) resolving the question of the DH, which must eventually be either embraced or rejected by baseball as a whole. It would balance the leagues with one another and encourage balance within each league individually. It would let fans see all of the league's stars every year, making it far easier for the league to market its star players in a way it has failed to do for the past decade and has always struggled to do as well as the NBA and NFL.

It may even pave the way to a long overdue reconciliation of the two leagues, as set forth in this excellent 2010 article.

The time has come to make interleague play a more regular occurrence. Baseball will be more fun, more fair and more intriguing if that happens—and the next time the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs come to the brink of a brawl, it just might mean something.