Friday, May 19, 2006

Fixing Interleague Play

A big deal has been made out of interleague play, seemingly every year. "It's gotten stale." It's not that big a deal." "Who wants to see the Blue Jays play the Rockies?" The fact that it's quarantined off into the same time on the schedule every year doesn't help - it just gives the mass media something to whine about (or gush over, in two-team markets).

Here's my take: I love interleague play. I'm a baseball fan, not just a Red Sox fan, so I love seeing teams from the NL that I don't usually get to see play. I also prefer NL baseball without the DH, so I like seeing overmatched AL managers like Terry Francona and Mike Hargrove try to figure out double-switches, and AL pitchers taking their first at-bats since high school. It's fun.

The thing is that MLB is, naturally, doing it wrong. The scheduling of the whole thing stinks, and the fact that there are leagues and divisions with different numbers of teams in them screws the whole thing up. For example, during this first big "rivalry weekend" of the season, we've got not only the above bizarre Toronto-Colorado match-up, but we've also got the Braves playing the Diamondbacks, which is necessary because the NL has two more teams in it.

That's the crux of the problem right there - the foolish 16:14 team ratio. Both leagues are playing for the same number of playoff spots, so this completely unfair set-up has to stop. So if you'll indulge me while I put on my commissioner's outfit (which, judging by Bud, is an ugly blazer and pants pulled up to my nipples), here's my plan:

Step One: Realign the league. It doesn't have to be drastic, but anything short of 6 five-team divisions is stupid and wrong. In my mind, it's very simple: you move Colorado to the AL West, and you move Houston to the NL West. Not only does this even up the divisions and leagues, but it puts natural rivals Texas and Houston both in western divisions.

Step Two: Establish the natural rivals and stick to them. The rivals are simple to pair off geographically or historically, except for the remainders in each division:

Blue Jays-Phillies

The first at least gives you a World Series rematch, the second matches up two old-school baseball towns, and the third... well, it is what it is. In the long run, this barely matters, because of...

Step Three: Blow up the schedule. I've always thought that if you're going to have interleague play, do it all the way or don't do it at all. Every team should play every other team over the course of a season, and interleague games shouldn't be restricted to three weeks in June. Not only would this spread out some interesting match-ups throughout the season, but it would eliminate the inequalities of the current schedule, such as the Mets having to play six games against the Yankees every year, while the Marlins (when they were good) got to play the Devil Rays.

Here's how I would break it down, from the perspective of the Red Sox:

Games vs. AL East: 56 (14 vs. each team)
Games vs. AL Central: 30 (6 vs. each team)
Games vs. AL West: 30 (6 vs. each team)
Games vs. Braves: 4
Games vs. rest of NL: 42 (3 vs. each team)

You still get 162 games, and you end up with 9 four-game series throughout the season, which seems about right over six months. Also, all of your four-game series would be against division rivals (two each) and your "natural rival" from the other league.

MLB could still make a showcase out of "rivalry weekend" if they wanted to, having all of the natural rivals play each other at the same time. They could even do it right after the all-star break if they wanted to focus on the AL vs. NL theme, which would almost guarantee that you'd see the other team's top four pitchers against your top four.

The one glaring problem is balancing home games vs. road games. In each season, you only play teams from the other league once, meaning you have to be home for some and on the road for others. It happens. I'd propose an NFL-style division rotation, where, for example, the AL East would host the NL Central and play at the NL West one year - 15 home and 15 road - and switch the following year. Within the division, you'd just have to rotate it among the non-natural rivals (6 home and 6 road).

That just leaves the natural rivals. The only way to split a 4-game series is to make it a home-and home, which I think would be awesome. It would be tough, travel-wise, for a few teams (Red Sox-Braves and Mariners-Padres), but for the subway/freeway/beltway series and other in-state match-ups, it would be cake. If the union made a big deal about the travel, though, you could always do two games the Monday and Tuesday of all-star week, move the all-star break to Wednesday-Friday, and finish the series at the other park on Saturday-Sunday. That's not ideal, but it's an alternative.

I'd also insist that there be three periods of almost exclusive divisional play. Every team should be playing its own division rivals as much as possible three times each year: the opening two weeks of the season, the two weeks following the trade deadline, and the final two weeks of the season. This way, theoretically, you'd get to see the teams in your division when they're completely healthy, when they've got their fortified roster for the stretch run, and when you're coming down to the wire and fighting for playoff spots.

The benefits of this arrangement are everywhere. First, you could finally just give home field in the World Series to the team with the better record and end this all-star game charade, because the "the leagues don't play each other enough" argument is out the window. Second, except for a few home and road discrepancies vs. the other league, every team plays the exact same schedule as the other teams in its division, save for one game (the natural rivalry). Third, you get to see every team each season. Fourth, the playing field in the NL Central, the AL West, and both wild card races is leveled, as each division (and league) has the same number of teams.

I'm sure there are some dissenting views out there, so fire away...

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