By Paul Gotham
Imagine a realignment of Major League Baseball. Instead of the American League and the National League competing for the opportunity to win the World Series, professional baseball would have one distinct major league – let’s call it the premier league for the purpose of this article. This league would consist of sixteen teams: The New York Yankees, New York Mets, Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, Oakland A’s, Chicago White Sox, LA Angels, LA Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Houston Astros, Cincinnati Reds, and the Texas Rangers (the teams with the top records in this year’s major leagues). These teams would compete against each other for the entire season (162 games). Eight teams would qualify for the playoffs and compete for the World Series.
The remaining fourteen teams in the current MLB would compete in …let’s call it Division I. They would have a separate playoff and a separate title (we can decide on the name later). At the end of the season the league(s) would realign and the top four teams from Division I would replace the bottom four teams from the Premier League.
An absolutely ridiculous idea? Maybe. Completely unrealistic? Probably. Flies in the face of tradition? Possibly. Create an interesting shift in competition? Stands a chance. Worthy of discussion? More so still.
The English Premier Soccer (or Football as it is referred to across the pond) League has employed this system of relegation since the nineteenth century. We could easily dismiss this system by pointing to the overall financial success of American sports. This growth can be attributed to the proliferation of media outlets and television broadcasts. Does this mean that the competition within sports has also improved? Or has American sports become another commodity willing to conform to the whims of society. Something brokered to insure financial stability at the expense of encouraging competition.
Relegation would bring an end to the traditions of the American League pennant and the National League pennant – a tradition established in the late nineteenth century. Originally professional baseball in America competed in the National League. Renegade leagues formed to compete with the National League. Several tried but could not compete financially with the National League. That is until the American Association came along. With the possibility of losing their hold on the sport, owners from the NL agreed to form a new league with their rivals from the American Association. Thus our current Major League was formed. The Supreme Court cemented this union in 1922 giving the MLB a legal monopoly over baseball. Monopoly? Isn’t that un-American? Doesn’t monopoly suggest a lack of competition?
Yes, relegation would get rid of the traditions of pennant competition. Of course Major League Baseball hasn’t always been concerned with tradition. MLB has accepted the designated hitter, done away with scheduled double-headers, embraced Inter-League regular season play, a multi-divisional format within each league, and the subsequent infusion of the wild card to name a few. How important is tradition to the MLB? For that matter how important is competition?
Why relegation? I can think of a few reasons. The first that comes to mind is that professional baseball has become watered-down. This is no more evident than in the current MLB pitching staffs. Just last week the San Diego Padres offered 43 year-old David Wells a one year contract. We’re not talking about the ageless Nolan Ryan here. While Wells busied himself trying to figure out which seat he would occupy in the all-you-can-eat section at Dodger stadium, his agent managed to get him a contract. The Boston Red Sox are being discussed as having one of the best starting rotations this year. They have two pitchers over the age of 40, another who has never thrown a pitch in the Majors, and another who was their stopper last year. At this rate a record that will stand forever is one held by the Baltimore Orioles: four pitchers with twenty or more wins in a season (Trivia challenge – can you name those four pitchers without using a reference for the answer?). The scarcity of quality starting pitching is apparent with the strategy that two ace starters can carry a team through the playoffs and win the World Series. Two?!?!?! Does that mean that some teams in the playoffs only have one quality starter? No wonder we see so many home runs.
Relegation would also encourage competition throughout the league. Teams at the top of the league vie for the World Series while those at the bottom struggle for survival. This might diminish the significance of the trade deadline. Too often the month of July is spent analyzing which teams lack any chance to make the playoffs and will subsequently trade any player with value. With relegation those teams at the bottom will seek to remain competitive and hope to maintain their status in the top division.
Relegation might also decrease the possibility or at least present a consequence for the Loria factor. The Loria factor? When an owner assembles a group of mercenaries, wins the World Series, and promptly holds a fire sale.
With relegation in place do you think Chicago Tribune might maintain a more consistent financial approach to their organization?
How many baseball players would want days off with relegation in place? Yes, 162 games is a long schedule. Wouldn’t relegation make each game that much more important?
Of course a few details would need to be worked out. MLB would need to make a decision about the designated hitter. Statistics and records would be influenced. That didn’t seem to matter when the number of regular season games was increased. People could argue that small-market teams would get squeezed out. The recent success of the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, and St. Louis Cardinals would prove otherwise.
Why stop with MLB? The mention of relegation might leave the entire Atlantic Division of the NBA shaking in their boots. Until just last week that entire division toiled below a .500 record. Actually the Western Conference has six teams with better records than any team in the East. Wouldn’t it make more sense to create the possibility of the two best teams competing for the chan’ship? Under the current system by default one team in the East will play in the finals. This could make for a tremendous upset. It could also make for a debacle. Does it bother anyone else that the Mavericks, Suns, Spurs, Jazz, Nuggets, and Lakers will duke it out for the chance to meet…to meet…the Pistons?!?!?! (Wow! C-Webb returns to the chan’ship after a sixteen year absence. Hope they have enough timeouts. Yo C-Webb!!! Got timeouts????)
How about the NHL? Before the lockout the NHL considered having an elite league with only the top teams competing for the Stanley Cup. Those potential participants consisted of only teams capable of maintaining large payrolls. That idea never saw the light of day.
Like the lack of quality pitching in MLB the current NHL shows a dearth of quality goaltenders. Check out the continued demand for the likes of 40-year-old Dominik Hasek and Ed Belfour. Better yet, how about the Islanders signing Rick DiPietro to a FIFTEEN YEAR CONTRACT!!! I’m sorry was that FIFTEEN YEARS?!?!? Who is this guy? Is he Ken Dryden? Fifteen years?!?! – too many teams but not enough quality goalies.
Using their current imbalanced scheduling system teams in the NHL are not guaranteed to play each team in the league. For example the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks will not meet this year during the regular season. The Sabres and Ducks are currently second and third for overall points. For fans of the British Premier League – can you imagine Chelsea and Liverpool not doing battle on the pitch? Yes, this seems like a simple scheduling foul-up. Bettman and his boys will find an easy remedy. It also may be symptomatic of something larger: too many teams and not enough talent to go around.
The NFL? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Yeah, the NFL is the most popular league, but picture this: a seventeen team NFL. Each team plays everyone once. How about that for a balanced schedule?
Let it sink in. Breath in…breath out.
Time for a Guinness…Brilliant!!!!!!!!