The Cohen Chronicles: Deep in the Heart of Texas
Beginning in the 2013 Major League Baseball season, the Houston Astros will move from the National League Central to the American League West, creating two 15-team leagues rather than the current 14/16 AL/NL split. And since 15 is not divisible by two, this means that interleague play, formally limited to a select few weeks during the season, will become a nightly occurrence. This writer has a couple of questions about this seismic shift:
Why? And, why?
Much of baseball traditionalists’ recent ire has been directed at the addition of a second wild card in each league, but this recent decision to mess with interleague play is far more deserving of their scorn. Up until 1997, AL and NL teams did not meet at all during the regular season, reserving their battles for spring training and the World Series. To be fair, interleague play was first discussed in December 1956, following a proposal by Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, who was general manager of the Cleveland Indians at the time. Limited interleague play, while still controversial, has proven to be a popular addition to the game, if the increased attendance figures for interleague games are any indication. But now, MLB isn’t talking about three weeks during the regular season. MLB is talking about the entire regular season. To which I respond, “Why?”
In this writer’s opinion, occasional interleague play is great for the game. Sure, there is an inevitable scheduling imbalance—it is impossible to give every team the same interleague opponents, given the differing sizes of the two leagues—but it gives fans in AL markets a chance to see the NL’s superstars in person, and vice versa. That said, much of the novelty of interleague play stems from its confinement to three weeks in May and June. By expanding it to six months, MLB risks turning a nominally appealing interleague series into three run-of-the-mill games no different from the 159 preceding and following them.
The stark differences between the AL and NL have always helped set baseball apart from other sports. The two leagues were run independently until 1999, with separate presidents and umpiring crews, and have played under different sets of rules since 1973, when the AL adopted the designated hitter rule.
But I’m a realist, and it’s clear that season-long interleague play is the wave of the future. That brings me to my next question: Why move Houston into the AL?
The NL Central currently has six teams, and the AL West four, in contrast to the five-team structure of the other four divisions. That doesn’t necessarily mean an NL Central team has to move to the AL West, but it certainly streamlines the process—having a team switch leagues is enough of an undertaking without having to realign the divisions as well. However, there is already an NL Central team that would be a perfect choice to switch leagues: the Milwaukee Brewers.
Since their inception in 1969 as the Seattle Pilots, the Brewers had been members of the AL, even winning the pennant in 1982. In 1998, however, with the addition of one team to each league, it became necessary to have an existing team switch leagues (the solution chosen by the owners in lieu of year-round interleague play). The Brewers elected to move to the NL Central, where they have remained since; the Detroit Tigers moved from the AL East to AL Central to replace Milwaukee. Meanwhile, the Astros have been members of the NL since their inception in 1962. So why not move Milwaukee back into the AL and switch the Kansas City Royals from the AL Central to the AL West?
The reasons for moving Houston are not rooted in geography (although for the record, Kansas City, Mo., is less than one longitudinal degree east of Houston), but rather MLB’s desire to create a rivalry between the Astros and Texas Rangers. However, these two teams already meet six times a year in interleague play—and one of the stated goals of interleague play is the development of regional rivalries such as Yankees-Mets and Cubs-White Sox. The addition of season-long interleague play is a foolish idea that merits serious reconsideration by the MLB. However, if baseball’s czars are bent on moving forward with the plan, it should be done in a manner that preserves tradition as effectively as possible.