Eliminate divisions in the name of fair play

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If Major League Baseball is serious about competitive balance, it needs to scrap divisional realignment and embrace something far more drastic.

Unalignment.

Get rid of divisions. Get rid of unbalanced schedules. Get rid of inequality.

It's quite simple. Make two leagues, the American and National, with no geographical split. The AL has 14 teams and the NL 16 or, for true equitability, each league goes with 15 and baseball turns interleague play into a season-long event. Either way, the teams with the four best records in each league make the playoffs.

Short of a salary cap, to which the players' union will never agree, bringing socialism to alignment is the clearest way. Treat every team as equally as possible when it comes to scheduling, travel and pathway to the postseason.

This is not a novel concept. ESPN's Buster Olney floated something similar. NBC's Craig Calcaterra agrees with the concept. It has support – albeit silent – from players, managers and executives throughout the game. It's a significantly better idea than the so-called floating realignment that allows teams to change divisions based on their predicted competitiveness. It's better than simply adding another wild-card team, which creates two problems: a postseason that could stretch closer to Thanksgiving than Halloween, and a less meaningful regular season.

The plan takes the best part of the NBA and NHL's postseason structure – the rewarding of the best-performing teams, division be damned – and applies it without the interminability of those leagues' playoffs.

Best of all, it rids baseball of what is best called the Tampa Bay problem, the impetus behind all this realignment talk anyway. Granted, the problem isn't much of a problem this very minute. At 10-3, the Rays sport the best record in baseball. They have won seven in a row, including their last four at Fenway Park, in which they made the Boston Red Sox look like a small-market collection of compost. The Rays are a brilliantly constructed, deftly run, shrewdly managed, overflowingly talented team.

And yet their standing above the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, even a dozen or so games into the season, looks odd. The Yankees are a $1.6 billion franchise, the Red Sox an $870 million behemoth and the Rays worth just over $300 million, according to the latest numbers from Forbes. Though the revenue streams aren't quite proportional, they illustrate that the Yankees and Red Sox live in penthouses and the Rays operate out of a one-room efficiency.

The Rays shouldn't be damned to always chasing the Yankees and Red Sox because they play in a stadium on a particular coast. Excellent management deserves reward, not an impossible-to-sustain situation. Following my column on the inevitability of the Rays losing talent, I engaged in a friendly debate with Jonah Keri on the team's long-term viability. He is writing a book on the Rays and believes they'll continue to thrive. I'm a tad more skeptical.

This entire debate is unnecessary. A solution stares baseball in the face, and as the end of the current labor agreement approaches in December 2011, the conversation about distribution of revenue-sharing money may get ugly. The Yankees and Red Sox are tired of supporting the welfare system that props up the Rays and other low-revenue teams, and any suggestion that rich give more to poor will widen the rift. It's going to be owners vs. players – and, perhaps, owners vs. owners, too.

So blow it up. Start over. Unalign. Allow teams to keep the current sharing agreement while addressing the balance problem. Sacrifice the bonanza of Yankees-Red Sox 18 times a year – sorry, ESPN – for a schedule that evenly spreads games against them and gives every AL team a substantive piece of the New York-Boston ticket spike. As unfair as life is in the AL East, it's downright comfortable in the other divisions.

The schedule is a gimme: AL teams would play everyone in the league 11 times a year, with 19 interleague games. Those in the NL would play eight teams 10 games each and seven teams nine games each, plus the 19 interleague contests. If a team goes somewhere twice one year, it would host that team twice the next season. The interleague games would rotate yearly. And if baseball prefers 15 teams in each league, it could move Milwaukee (or another willing participant) to the AL and use a schedule with at least one interleague game every day instead of confining them to two blocks a year.

Either way, it's a significantly simpler schedule than the one baseball currently uses to encourage rivalries and limit travel. Baseball is a $6 billion industry and can easily cover extra travel costs – and stop subjecting the world to Kansas City vs. Cleveland for 11 percent of the season. Ten or 11 games is enough to stomach bad matchups and enough to savor good ones.

Baseball is preparing for realignment, according to one source debriefed on negotiations, particularly if the revenue-sharing chasm persists. No shocker there. Baseball realigns as often as a chiropractor. Expansion teams want in? Realign! Game's getting stale? Realign! Bud Selig caught a cold? Maybe realignment will cure it! From 1901 to 1969, baseball was the AL and the NL. It split each league into East and West divisions that year, then went to three divisions in 1994. Four years later, Milwaukee went from the AL to the NL and Detroit from the AL East to the Central to accommodate an expansion team: the Tampa Bay Rays.

When the Rays shocked baseball by going to the World Series in 2008, it highlighted the tenuous nature of their success. They need outside fortunes to align with theirs to make the postseason. And though it seems excessive to shake up the game on account of one division, that one division is a microcosm of the game's greater issues.

Opponents of this plan will rally against the abolition of division competition. Playoff races would still exist, and seeding would be legitimately important. Today, the best team in a league could potentially face a wild-card team better than a division winner. Scrapping divisions altogether removes that inequity and guarantees four excellent teams from each league in October. The NFL allows 12 of 32 teams into its postseason, the NBA and NHL 16 of 30, and it's nothing more than a hollow profit grab to which baseball should never dip, even if MLB does love a good hollow profit grab.

Unalignment's effect would be subtle and preventative. Had there been no divisions in the 15 years since baseball went to three divisions, the NL playoff schedule would have changed seven times and the AL's five. Two of the teams that would've been excluded: the 2006 Cardinals and 2000 Yankees, both World Series champions.

Which is fine. They got hot during the postseason. They used a flawed system to get there. Better to have the 85-win Phillies instead of the 83-win Cardinals, or the 90-win Indians instead of the 87-win Yankees. Just as good to have a one-game playoff between the Cardinals and Expos in '96 and Toronto and Texas in '98 as it was to see Minnesota the last two years or Colorado and San Diego in '07.

The change is major and imperative. It may be difficult for some to accept. Of all the solutions, it is the simplest and best. It works in basketball and hockey. It's how the English Premier League chooses its Champions League participants. Baseball doesn't need to share more money. It doesn't need to separate New York and Boston. It needs to think radically – and pragmatically.

Unalignment is the way.

MLB division changes

Team changes image
Team changes image