Monday, April 15, 2013

MLB Should Consolidate the Leagues

By Adam Russell

Now that Major League Baseball has balanced the American and National Leagues and created a schedule with more interleague games throughout a larger portion of the schedule, maybe the time has come to consider unifying the two leagues. To baseball purists, interleague play was an abomination to the game and watered down the significance of the World Series; now that interleague play is more prevalent and a constant on the schedule, "The Bigs" might as well take the plunge and do what every other major sports league in the U.S. has done and put the leagues together. The result could be a more interesting World Series and the creation of great rivalries never before possible.

What I mean by that is to do away with the separation of leagues through making the rules consistent — most notably either dropping the designated hitter rule or adopting it in both leagues — and making the schedules reflective of a unified league. Now, granted, two of the four major team sports leagues absorbed a handful of teams from a failed rival league (NBA/ABA and NHL/WHL), but football proved that merging two leagues into one, creating an objective schedule and adopting consistent rules helped strengthen the brand and become the most popular sport in the country. When the NFL and AFL agreed to merge for the 1970 season, it was the best move that both leagues could make to bring stability to the sport and heighten its popularity, eventually exalting it above even America's Pastime.

Imagine what the possibilities could be if Major League Baseball decided to drop its two-league system, make the rules consistent, and schedule more games between them. I'm not talking about radically changing the structure of the league, but rather simply putting the two together for consistency sake. And, since most of what the two leagues do is in concert anyway, like the draft, trades, and free agency, a couple minor tweaks are all that's needed to make this a reality.

Of course, the first difference to be hashed out would be whether to keep the designated hitter rule or not. I was surprised to learn several years ago that the DH rule was adopted by MLB as an organization, but that use of the rule was left up to the individual leagues. The American League decided to give it a go for one year, while the National League wanted to keep tradition. After a season of more offense and exciting games with that extra hitter added to the lineup, the AL kept the DH, but the NL stayed the course of baseball purity.

Most old-school fans claim that having the DH eliminates much of the late-game strategy used when a pitcher is in the batting order, such as the double-switch and careful use of pinch hitters. After all, baseball is a thinking man's game and much of the chess-like intellect managers need is taken away by the DH; but most casual fans like offense, and if one more pure hitter is in the lineup with the ability to hit home runs, then they're all for that. I mean, who wants to see a pitcher come to the plate every couple of innings only to strike out, hit a weak ground ball, or sacrifice?

However, in this day and age of specialists, having pitchers who exclusively pitch across the board would be in keeping with the current sports environment. I mean, in football defensive tackles no longer do double-duty as kickers and quarterbacks don't line up in the secondary on defense anymore. So why should baseball pitchers be expected to bat, especially past the high school level?

A second issue to consider is how to make the schedule more attractive with additional games against the other league, or conference as it probably would be with consolidation. In the other leagues, more games are played against division rivals than the other teams even within its own conference. Currently, MLB teams play 17 interleague games, which is just over 10 percent of the schedule. Maybe that number could be doubled or even higher, not only to give several cities the opportunity to see storied franchises like the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers, but to give the World Series a little more flair.

A good starting point could be a quick three-game series with every team in the other league, which would amount to 45 games. The home-away factor could be as simple as all home against one or two divisions and all away against the other (or two) division. The rest of the schedule could be filled by teams from outside the division. It could get complicated, but it could also be done.

The final point involves the Fall Classic and how home field advantage is determined. If the two leagues were consolidated into one organization, then World Series home field advantage could be decided solely off of regular season records. The ridiculous rule of having the All-Star Game winner determine who would host a Game 7 if it came to that would no longer be necessary.

Imagine if David Stern or Gary Bettman came to the conclusion that the conference that wins their respective all-star games would get home court/ice advantage in the playoffs. Something like that would not make sense simply because the schedules reflect a more objective record than it would if the two conferences were completely separated, or even if they played a limited number of games against each other. Because of that, a team in the NBA that wins 60 games is a legitimately good team because it has been tested against every team in the league. If baseball were to adopt the same type of schedule, then the team with the better regular season record could be granted home field advantage in the postseason.

Baseball has the longest and richest history of any team sport in America, but Commissioner Bud Selig has not been afraid to tinker with tradition and bring new ideas to the table to make the National Pastime more attractive to casual sports fans. Doing something as unorthodox as unifying the two leagues, creating consistency within the rules and having teams play a schedule that involves every other team (or at least a majority of teams) in the opposite league would not only cement his legacy as a visionary leader, but also possibly detract from the black eyes that MLB has suffered in recent years.

So, could there ever be the possibility of MLB proposing a unified organization with consistent rules and a more objective schedule? If enough fans jump on the bandwagon and get the owners to see the potential benefits of such a change, it most certainly could be possible. Need an example? Hello, Division 1 college football playoffs!

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