Houston Astros' switch to AL West is good call
November, 17, 2011
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com
The Houston Astros' move to the American League West in 2013 is a decision steeped in logic and a shift that needed to occur.
Astros fans won't immediately see it this way. They'll decry the addition of the designated hitter and the loss of the double-switch, as all good National League lifers would. They also won't like moving out of a division played almost exclusively in the Central time zone and into one in which three of the five teams play on the West Coast. Ask any Texas Rangers fan, that's a lot of late-night baseball and sluggish mornings for the 9-to-5 crowd.
Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan, who grew up in rural Alvin not far from Houston -- and later pitched for the Astros -- has said for months that he's in favor of the realignment.
"I grew up an Astros fan, but I understand the desire to balance out the two leagues," Ryan said during the season. "From our perspective, having them in our division, I like it, because it gives us another team in our time zone. We’re at a disadvantage in our division that way because so many of our games start at 9 o’clock, and it hurts our TV ratings. I think that if both teams are competitive in a given year, it will create a good rivalry within the state. I think there’s a lot of pluses from our perspective.”
From purely a baseball standpoint, this had to happen.
For too long, baseball settled for a 16-team National League and a 14-team American League. And for too long, the AL West stood as a four-team division compared to the AL's East and Central divisions. Meanwhile, the NL's East and West divisions had five teams while the Central coped as an unwieldy six-team division.
That alignment came about during a 1997 vote as baseball allowed a team to move from one league to the other for the first time since the major leagues were formed in 1903. Now, it will happen twice in 15 years. The Milwaukee Brewers made the switch before the 1998 season and that AL city has survived the switch -- including the double-switch.
This move is a condition of the sale of the Astros from Drayton McLane to Jim Crane. The Astros are the obvious choice to switch leagues and balance the divisions, as Ryan has noted, from a geographical and rivalry standpoint.
A long-time member of the NL West before moving to the Central in 1994 when baseball opted for the three-division format in both leagues, the Astros aren't exactly steeped in Central Division rivalry or tradition -- although they did advance to the franchise's lone World Series in 2005 as a member of the division. The Dodgers served as their biggest rival from the old days, so there's minimal damage from the rivalry standpoint.
And that leads us to the Silver Boot, the interleague prize of the Lone Star Series between the two clubs that has annually attracted sellout crowds in Arlington and Houston -- cities that didn't even know or care that the other played baseball prior to the invention of interleague play. Other than when the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox come to Arlington, the Astros are a top draw and fans have seemed to enjoy making the four-hour drive to the other's park.
The boot can stay as a prize for the trophy case, but now that these two Texas teams will play in the same division, the boot will take a backseat to the division title.