Realignment: Baseball Should Trust Selig

Major League Baseball is considering a “floating” realignment system that would allow teams to shift leagues and divisions from year to year. The change is designed to encourage competitive balance and help share revenue. Teams not planning on contending could move to tougher, financially powerful divisions like the AL West and guarantee more sellouts and be less reliant on revenue sharing. Better teams would able to move to avoid the absurd roadblock that the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays face in the AL East.

Bud Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball, is hardly a popular figure among baseball fans—and perhaps it should be that way. As the MLB is now considering major changes to its scheduling yet again, it is important to look back at what Selig has brought to America’s Pastime.

First the negatives:

Steroids: Former Ranger 20-game-winner Rick Helling testified in front of the Executive Board of baseball in 1997 to explain how rampant steroids had become and encouraged the league to take action. Selig stalled. Selig was always considered the Owners’ Commissioner, and acknowledgement of steroids threatened baseball’s image and revenue. The plan backfired as the first decade of the 21st century has been rife with steroids scandals, and most fans assume players guilty until proven innocent; all of baseballs’ records set in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, will be forever questioned, and the scandals nearly destroyed the sport.

The Milwaukee Brewers: Selig moved the Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee in 1970 and changed the name to the Brewers, but that doesn’t change the fact that he ran the organization nearly into the ground. Attempting to compete with the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox until their move to the NL Central in 1997, the team lost any semblance of a good farm system and spent big money on mediocre players.

Owners’ Collusion of 1985-1987: In an attempt to keep players’ salaries low, Selig colluded with other owners but was finally caught. In 1990, the owners settled out of court with the Major League Baseball Players Association, awarding it $280 million.

The Expos Debacle: After Jeff Loria, former owner of the Montreal Expos, bought the Florida Marlins in 2001, MLB bought the Expos with the clear intention of eliminating the franchise, which they did after the 2004 season. I am not lamenting the loss of a Canadian franchise, but what the league did was backhanded and wrong.

The All-Star Game: A tie? Really? The 2002 Midsummer Classic might have ruined the event forever, ending after 11 innings in a 7-7 tie when both sides exhausted their bullpens. Selig introduced a new rule in 2003 that awarded home-field advantage in the World Series to the winning league, encouraging managers to save pitchers for late innings in order to avoid this problem in the future.

There is no question that Selig has done some great things for the game, however. As much as I enjoy ragging on the decrepit commissioner, it is hard to argue with his successes:

Money: Baseball is drawing more fans than ever, and TV contracts are so large that they often are more important to teams than ticket receipts. The MLB has created its own 24-hour network, and the Yankees have their very own YES network as well.

International popularity: Baseball is increasing in popularity around the world. More and more players are from around the globe. People thought the World Baseball Classic would be silly, but it has already exceeded expectations, and teams seem to care about winning.

Geographic Spread of Baseball: The success of Selig’s Brewers helped bring baseball to corners of the country where people thought baseball would never work. Baseball in Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Kansas City are largely thanks to Bud.

This Time it Counts: Many baseball purists find the All-Star game deciding home-field advantage to be gimmicky and unfair, especially since the American League has won twelve in a row if you exclude the 2002 mess. It may be gimmicky, but it has brought excitement back to the best All-Star game in sports and reinvigorated the rivalry between the leagues.

Interleague Play: Another idea baseball purists hated, interleague play is brilliant. Fans rarely get to see the teams from the other league play, and now they have the chance. Interleague games sell well, and it’s fun to see the AL pitchers try to hit.

Revenue Sharing: Another brilliant Selig creation, baseball has managed to avoid a hard salary cap (for now) through revenue sharing. A collective television contract share pool is evenly distributed among all the teams, and teams over the soft salary cap must pay a “luxury tax,” which is then given to the teams with the lowest payrolls.

However, the idea of loose division alignments does not seem to be another entry in the line of brilliant Selig moves. Nothing is set in stone yet, but it seems that the three best teams in each league would be split among the three divisions, while the team with the best record would be in the four-team division. Teams would likely only be able to move to divisions with teams within two time zones (The Red Sox could never play in the AL West), but it still seems rather arbitrary and silly.

Yet it is hard not to trust in Bud here. He has made the right move for baseball more often than not, especially regarding competitive balance and increased revenues. Selig was behind league realignment, which increased the number of divisions from two to three and instituted a wild card, increasing the number of playoff teams from four to eight while still maintaining the most exclusive post-season of the big American sports. The new rules would help legitimize the wild card by making schedules more even across the board. As it stands right now, the Rays have to play 36 games against the Yanks and Red Sox while the Twins play 36 games against the White Sox and Tigers.

Realignment may not be the perfect solution. Perhaps it is just time for a salary cap—a real one. Maybe the league needs to increase revenue sharing and reform the way teams are allowed to spend that money. A salary minimum would be nice as well; Alex Rodriguez makes $33 million dollars in 2010, while the Florida Marlins team earned a combined $36 million last year.

Yet, in the end, baseball has been better off for Selig, and should continue to follow his guidance in matters like this. In the coming years, some may wish for what we have now, but some still wish for the days when only two teams made the playoffs.

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