by John Furgele
This is not a new or novel concept. In fact, you may say that it’s a copycat column that will travel down the road to nowhere. Be that as it may, Major League Baseball should think about expansion, because like all businesses, you have to keep your product fresh and the best way to do that is to expand your product. If not, see Blackberry.
Right now, there are two 15 team leagues, the American and National League and because of that, there is a mandated interleague game each day of the baseball season. Now, that does not bother me one bit. The purists and tradionalists scream and bark, but let’s be fair, the purists are older and in 20 years, most will be gone. Every other major sport (NBA, NHL, NFL and the MLS) has interleague or interconference play, so why can’t baseball? Why does baseball have to stay stuck in the preverbial time warp?
A 32 team Major League Baseball solves some problems and actually could correct or enhance other ones. Interleague play, which started in 1997 could be eliminated (even though I would keep it, but would limit the interleague games that each team plays). The best argument against interleague play is that it creates an uneven schedule for teams competing for “league playoffs.” If the Orioles and Royals are, in essence, competing for a playoff berth, wouldn’t it make more sense for the teams to play each other rather than the Nats and Cardinals? The answer of course, is yes, and even though the other sports do have interconference play, it’s more balanced and certainly more thought-out.
Another reason for 32 teams is the theory of eight and four. Because 32 can be divided by eight and four, you could have four eight team divisions—two in the AL and two in the NL—rather than six divisions with five. And, because of this, it makes for a nicer way to create the playoff plan. With four eight team divisions, each division winner would make the playoffs and since each division has just four teams, the race for first would be intense and for the most part, fair. Yes, the second place team from the AL East may have a better record than the AL South winner, but nobody ever said that life was fair.
I will use the Pacific Coast League model for my model. In the 16 team PCL, there are four, four team divisions. The division winner makes the playoffs, period. No wild cards, no play-in game; in order to qualify for the postseason, you have to “win” something. To me, that’s the model I would use for the new 32 team MLB. That said, you and I both know that wouldn’t happen. Each league would likely allow six teams into the playoffs, with the two Wild Card qualifiers playing an opening round series that I hope would be a best-of-three, but the powers-that-be would probably stick with a one game play-in if you will.
The other Triple A league, the International League, has 14 teams, and because of that, has divisions with six, four and four teams. The North division (6 teams) always complains that their division winner has to beat out five other teams, while the West and South only three. The IL has a four team playoff with the three division winners and one wild card competing for the Governor’s Cup. A 32 team MLB allows the International League to have the 16 team PCL format. Of course, with 32 teams, a third Triple A league could form (can you say American Association, take 3?). That would allow teams to cut down on traveling expenses. The PCL, even with its nice 16 team table has teams from Portland, OR to New Orleans. That is not easy on the traveling secretaries. One could see two 12 team leagues and one 10 team league at the Triple A level if MLB goes to 32.
Assuming MLB would allow six teams in each league (12 total) to qualify for its playoffs, the Opening Round should be the above mentioned best-of-three, and the next three rounds should be best-of-seven affairs. Don’t get me wrong, the best-of-five is very exciting and dramatic, but usually, the longer the series, the chances the better overall team will win, and at the end of the day, most leagues want the teams with the glossiest records to play for its title. There was a time that the NBA and NHL used to have the old miniseries, the best-of-three. I remember the old Buffalo Braves beating Philadelphia 124-123 in Game 3 at The Spectrum in 1976. Eventually, both the NBA and NHL went to the best-of-five format and now all the rounds are best of seven. It’s probably time for baseball to do the same. And, unlike European soccer, where there are no playoffs, American sports are based on playoffs. People usually tune out during the regular season and in during the playoffs. So, why should baseball keep punishing itself by offering less playoff games with a best-of-five divisional series?
The one sport that doesn’t have playoffs is college football and what’s the one thing that the public wants college football to implement? A bonafide playoff format that crowns a true national champion. And, even with wild cards, only 12 of 32 (37.5%) of its teams would make the playoffs. There was a time when the NFL had each conference allow four teams into its playoffs; the three division winners and the one wild card. Eventually, they allowed 10 per conference with the two wild cards facing off on wild card weekend. Now, there are four division winners and two wild cards per conference and a few years ago, there was talk of adding two more playoff teams—one per conference—to the playoff mix. The NBA and the NHL (which also should expand to 32 teams) now allow 16 playoff qualifiers.
Baseball is still the number two or three sport in this country, depending on where you rank college football. Like NFL football, college football is becoming more popular than ever. Ratings wise, college football surpasses baseball but there are some parts of the country where you talk college football and you get the “I don’t know anything about college football,” response. These same people do know something about baseball. MLB expansion makes sense because of what you call inventory. These sports networks have one major goal: to get your cable bill to $1,000 per month and the more live sports they can offer, the better the chance of that. More and more people are staying home to watch games. It’s cheaper, warmer, the food prices are manageable as are the lines to the bathroom. Furthermore, you can see more at home. There was a time where if you wanted HD, you had to go to the event, now you just turn on the 55 inch flatscreen and you have it all. The commute home is much easier too.
To me, 32 is the magic number for Major League Baseball. If MLB does take my advice (and they should), they would have to realign the divisions and that will take forward thinking people to get it done. The DH should be implemented in the National League to deal with teams shifting from one league to the other. Once again, the purists will be mad, but the American League has used the DH since 1973! Folks, 1973 was forty years ago, not just a few years back. Your little boy or girl born in 1973 has likely provided you with grandkids by now, so the DH experiment is not going anywhere anytime. And, just about every baseball league—even little leagues and most high schools—use the DH. I was a DH for my junior varsity baseball team back in 1983!
The obvious question is where to put the teams. That we can save for a future column, but because MLB royally worked over Montreal, that city should be given a team. There are 1.8 million people living in Montreal and 3.3 million in the Montreal metro. Those who say Montreal did not support its Expos are only half right. If your spouse told you that he/she wanted a divorce, and eight years later, there they are eating corn flakes at your breakfast table, how would you feel? That’s what happened in Montreal. MLB threatened and threatened, just like your spouse, but kind of kept hanging around. Montrealers, like you, finally said, “honey, are you going to move out sometime?” A new downtown 35,000 seat stadium could bring Les Expos back and if you put them in the AL East with the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays, that would be something.
The second city would be interesting. Based on population, San Antonio, Austin and Indianapolis make sense, but MLB could certainly find a suitable city for its 32nd team. The time is right to do this. MLB has not expanded since 1998 when it added the Rays and Diamondbacks. Since that time, all the other sports have expanded and college football has even done so, by allowing Division 1-AA programs like Troy, Western Kentucky, Buffalo, Massachusetts, Connecticut and many more to jump in and add to the Division 1-A “inventory.” MLB should not “drop the ball,” because growing your product is the most important thing to do. Grow or die is used in business and it applies to MLB.