Commentary

Astros' sale to drastically alter the sport

Two 15-team leagues, two more wild cards … yes, baseball is in for some big changes

Originally Published: November 17, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The world is changing.

And not just Bud Selig's world. Or Drayton McLane's world. Or the portion of the world currently known as Houston, Texas.

If you follow baseball, if you watch it, if you care about it, your world is changing, too.

It changed forever Thursday, with Selig's announcement that the Houston Astros have been sold, that they're heading for the American League. It's an announcement that doesn't merely unleash a ripple effect. It unleashes a tidal wave of change in this sport.

[+] EnlargeJim Crane
AP Photo/David J. PhillipNew Astros owner Jim Crane will see his team move to the American League West in 2013.

It means 15 teams in each league. It means six divisions of five teams each. It means interleague play begins on Opening Day and won't take an intermission until the final day of the regular season.

It means it's now safe to add an extra wild-card entry in each league, because we finally have the same number of teams in each league and each division, so every team's odds of making it to the postseason are the same -- theoretically, at least.

It means there is now going to be huge incentive to finish first, because the wild-card teams' road to the parade floats is about to get much more precarious.

Once the one-and-done, win-or-go-fishing, wild-card survivor showdowns begin in either 2012 or '13, it means the days of teams cruising through September, setting up their rotation for October, figure to be as extinct as the Brontosaurus.

And this, you realize, is just the beginning. Once the new labor deal gets finished, there's a whole lot more coming -- changes that will affect big-league payroll disparity, revenue sharing, the draft, free agency and the broad scope of the business of baseball.

But we can worry about those changes another day. It's time to contemplate what these changes mean. So let's take a look:

Extra wild cards

True confession: I'm one of the people who has thought for years that this was an inspired idea. We've seen too many Septembers when two teams headed down the stretch, a game or two apart, in what should have been a classic race for first place -- and neither team even cared who won.

That was a spectacle that offended a lot of people in this sport, and the commissioner of baseball happened to be one of them.

"The one criticism we've had is that we didn't put enough on winning the division," Selig said Thursday. "Now we have. Now we have in a big way."

Merely forcing the wild-card teams to survive an extra round of playoffs would have accomplished that. But now that the alternative to finishing first is a ONE-GAME playoff? Heck, you'd rather have an appendectomy than walk that tightrope. Wouldn't you?

So how'd we wind up with that format? It took some doing. Early on, people within the sport favored a best-of-three wild-card round. But the more they thought it through, the more appealing a one-game showdown got.

"Baseball people … much to my surprise … my 14-man committee [for on-field matters] all wanted one game," Selig said. "The only guy who had some concerns about it was me. … They liked the one game. And it will be dramatic."

Oh, it'll be dramatic, all right. It's hard to beat the drama of kicking off the postseason with the equivalent of two Game 7's. If you loved the intrigue of the Sept. 28 grand finale to this season, you ought to love Wild Card Showdown Day. But frankly, drama wasn't the only selling point.

Trying to fit more postseason baseball into an already-overstuffed schedule was always going to be a challenge. But adding one extra game, one extra day? At least that isn't a four-Advil headache.

Adding a best-of-three series, with a travel day, on the other hand? That was going to mean extending the postseason for close to an extra week. Plus, it was going to force the first-place teams to sit around for as long as five days, waiting for somebody to show up and play them. And nobody thought that was a good idea.

So a one-game, October Madness survivor game is what we're going to get. You should set your DVRs for that insanity right now.

In the meantime, we all know what the potential downside is to this format. Having your entire season come down to one game isn't fair. Period.

It's a lock that one of these years, a 98-win wild-card team is going to lose to an 86-win wild-card team. And that will really, really seem like a miscarriage of baseball justice. You'll need a Richter Scale handy to listen to talk radio if that happens.

But you know what the answer to those complaints will be?

"You should have finished first. Then you wouldn't have gotten yourself into that mess."

And that's where the switch to two 15-team leagues comes in. …

Realignment and the schedule

From the beginning, the players always viewed expanding the postseason as part of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.

Want to add wild-card teams? Cool. Want to pump up the incentive to finish first? Great. But … uh, just one thing. … if it was about to matter that much who wins the division, then there was one very large shoe that needed to drop:

The schedule.

Talk about fairness, if the answer to all complaints was going to be, "You should have finished first," then the question was: "Shouldn't all teams in the same division be playing basically the same schedule?" And the response to that was obvious. Absolutely, they should.

So what was the best way to produce a more fair, more equitable schedule? Realignment. That's what.

Realignment was the only way to make both leagues the same size and all six divisions the same size. And there was no way to even out the schedule if that didn't happen.

So voila. It just happened.

But what does it mean for the schedule? Heh-heh-heh. Guess what? Nobody knows yet -- because they still haven't figured that part out. Seriously.

So it was kind of amusing to hear Selig head for the podium Thursday and say, "This was vetted and revetted, then we vetted the revet, over and over." Really? He couldn't have been talking about the schedule itself, because there's still a furious debate over where that's headed, according to multiple sources.

What are the options? Here goes:

How much interleague: There is only one schedule format that's mathematically perfect -- but it would include 30 interleague games for each team.

That would mean all five teams in a division would play three interleague games apiece against the five clubs in the corresponding division in the other league (i.e., AL Central versus NL Central), plus three more apiece against five teams in a different division (i.e., AL Central versus NL West one year, then NL East the next).

But sources say there's still strong resistance to playing that many interleague games per year, so it's more likely they stick to the current 18. That would mean all five teams in one division would play three times apiece against every team in one division in the other league (i.e., NL West versus AL East) -- plus three "rivalry" games per team instead of the current six.

Year-round interleague: This will be the biggest change. If you have an odd number of teams in each league, there has to be an interleague game virtually every day of the season, from Opening Day through Game 162.

That means no more two-week or three-week interleague block in June, as we've had in the past. Sources say there is a chance there could still be a one-week interleague block, possibly one that would be carved out just for rivalries. But even that hasn't been decided yet.

September interleague: Want to brace yourself for some yelling and screaming? OK, envision this scenario:

The Red Sox re-sign David Ortiz to be their full-time DH. But the schedule sends them to, say, Cincinnati in the final week of the season. So there they are, a game out of first, and they have to play three games with no Big Papi. Think that might come up on "SportsCenter" at any point?

Well, get ready, because throughout September, somebody is going to be playing an interleague series every day. So even though it's likely that no more than 20 of the 30 teams will get stuck playing an interleague series after Sept. 1 and all teams will play the same number of interleague games during the season (which doesn't happen now), there are going to be issues. Unavoidable.

Games within your league: Nobody knows where the intraleague portion of the schedule is headed, either. In fact, that figures to be the source of the biggest debates.

Again, the only format that's mathematically perfect is this one: 72 games within your division (18 against each team), 60 outside your division (six against each of the other 10 teams) and 30 interleague games. But if 30 interleague games isn't going to fly, it's going to get messy.

Bud Selig I don't think any schedule is ever perfect. But this will be very good.

-- Commissioner Bud Selig

We know the commissioner loves the unbalanced schedule. And if finishing first is going to be the bonanza that wild-card madness appears to make it, then 18 games against each team in your division makes more sense than ever. But then what?

If the plan is 72 games within your division plus 18 more interleague games, that leaves 72 games against the other 10 teams in your league to divide up. And that makes for some tough arithmetic. But here's how it might work:

• Plan A -- seven games against most clubs in your league but eight against a couple. • Plan B -- six games against most teams in your league, plus four "extra" three-game series. • Plan C -- which could be something else entirely. A more balanced schedule with fewer division games, possibly? But that creates new issues. Beautiful.

September travel snafus: Imagine the Giants are locked in a dramatic September race in the NL West, and then have to jump on a plane and travel to conveniently located Tampa Bay for a late-September interleague series. Isn't everybody sure they'd be totally delighted by that idea?

Well, stuff like that is about to happen, unless the NL West plays the AL West in interleague play every year. A 30-game interleague schedule would allow that to happen. But if the plan is to keep it to 18 interleague games a year, it's trouble.

If the interleague divisions constantly rotate, then teams in the West are going to be assigned to play interleague games against the East once every three years (and vice-versa, obviously). So if one idea of the new schedule is to make travel easier, then hmmmm. … Mission not accomplished.

Fair and balanced? Finally, there's one more problem with playing 18 interleague games a year -- 15 against an entire division, plus three "rivalry" games:

All "rivalry" games are not created equal.

If this schedule tacks on three additional games to the otherwise-symmetrical schedule, just for the sake of ratings and attendance spikes, then how can baseball argue every team's schedule is virtually identical?

Three extra games against the Astros sure wouldn't be identical to three extra games against the Rangers, unless I'm missing something. So why are we going to all this trouble to "solve" this schedule problem again, if the schedule we wind up with leaves some of the same issues of unfairness people are griping about now?

"It won't be perfect," Selig conceded Thursday. "I don't think any schedule is ever perfect. But this will be very good."

Well, it will have its selling points. No doubt about that. But if the Mets finish a game out of first some year because they played the Yankees three times, while the Nationals win the division because they swept three games from the Orioles, how are the powers that be going to explain that?

Boy, who knows? But we can start screaming about that when it happens, I guess. What we know now leaves us enough to digest, because what we know now is this:

The world is changing. The great sport of baseball is changing. And we've only begun to contemplate just how much it's about to change.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com