MLB realignment proposal a search for fairness

Baseball, as currently structured, is full of inequities – fundamental, difficult-to-defend ones. At a basic level, a team in the NL Central has a 1-in-6 chance of winning its division, while a team in the AL West has a 1-in-4 chance. How is that fair? One team in the AL East, the Yankees, typically fields a payroll that is four or five times greater than that of a division rival, the Rays. How is that fair?

Interleague play merely adds another layer of unfairness. This year, with the NL Central theoretically matched up against the AL East, the Brewers have both the Red Sox and Yankees on their interleague schedule. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, who are battling the Brewers for the NL Central lead, face neither of the AL East behemoths. How is that fair?

The current proposal to expand the postseason from eight to 10 teams — which is expected to be implemented by 2012 — is one attempt to lessen the imbalances. (Well, its first purpose is to make more money, of course, but it is also designed to give teams like the Orioles, Rays and Blue Jays, stuck playing for third most years behind the Yankees and Red Sox, a better chance at making the playoffs once in awhile.)

The recent ESPN.com report about MLB considering realignment plans — with one NL team, most likely the Astros or Diamondbacks, shifting to the AL — as well as a move away from the six-division format, reflects another well-intentioned attempt to make baseball more fair. Even though baseball officials are giving it a less-than-50-50 chance of coming to fruition by 2012, this is a time of soul-searching and brainstorming within the game, and you have to applaud the effort spent in trying to level the playing field. For teams such as the Orioles and Nationals, the notion of two 15-team leagues, with five playoff teams apiece — and no more ties to east-coast divisions full of huge payrolls — has to be welcome news.

The problem is, it is virtually impossible to eliminate every inequity in baseball, and these proposals essentially become choices between two different sets of inequities. If baseball goes to two 15-team leagues, with or without divisions, there will need to be at least one interleague series going on at all times, and there would always be a chance that a playoff spot could be decided on the final day of the season by an interleague game. Many people in baseball who view interleague play as a marketing gimmick would find such a scenario unpalatable. Also, any attempt at regionalizing the interleague matchups – by keeping geographic rivalries such as Yankees/Mets and Giants/A’s – will perpetuate the unfairness. On the other hand, if baseball eliminates divisions and moves to a balanced schedule, as opposed to the current unbalanced one, teams in remote corners of the country, such as the Mariners, are going to be penalized with an even more brutal travel itinerary.

It simply won’t be possible to satisfy everyone, no matter how baseball chooses to align its 30 teams, and there are hurdles to getting realignment done. But both the players and management appear amenable to making changes in the interest of fairness, and that’s good news for baseball.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.

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