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random baseball thoughts of the past two weeks (November, 2011)
Justin Verlander was just named the American League's Most Valuable Player for 2011, making him the first pitcher to win it since Dennis Eckersley shoplifted his award in 1992 (I'm sorry, he didn't deserve it), and the first starting pitcher to win it since Roger Clemens in 1986 (who deserved it).
There is always a lot of controversy over which pitchers should be eligible to win the MVP award, since the Cy Young Award is presented each year to the league's best pitcher. The old argument goes, "How can a pitcher, who pitches once every five days, be as valuable as an everyday player who plays at least six games a week?" There is some validity to that argument, but not this year.
The Detroit Tigers made a mockery of the American League Central Division race, winning it by 15 games, so the naysayers may say, "Why give the award to someone's whose team could've won without him?"
You tell me the Tigers could replace Verlander with any other pitcher in the American League, and they would have won as handily. He had a 24-5 won/loss record with league leading totals in innings, strikeouts, WHIP, and ERA. He had simply a dominant season, and that does matter, because as an ace starter, he sets up the whole rotation and makes it easier for the rest of the staff. He also threw his second career no-hitter in 2011 on May 7th, against Toronto.
And in my mind, a starting pitcher is the most important player in any sport, even an NFL quarterback. The QB is going to be there once a week, save an injury, and a team with a good defense can win with a so-so QB (The 2000 Baltimore Ravens come to mind.) But a good starting pitcher on a bad team can beat a so-so pitcher on a good team simply because of his dominance. And Verlander was as dominant as anyone in 2011. Good for him. He deserved it.
Now onto something else. The Houston Astros were sold to businessman Jim Crane for a discount price, if you can call it that, of $610 million, with the stipulation that the team moves from the National League to the American League in 2013. This is typical baseball myopia, in which MLB doesn't really know what it's doing.
I have nothing against Mr Crane or the sale, but the changing of leagues doesn't make any sense. MLB is doing this because it wants two 15-team leagues playing a balanced schedule, which it what was supposed to happen back in 1998, the date of the last MLB expansion. But this is wrong on so many levels.
First of all, this dilutes interleague play. When interleague play started in '98, it was a money maker, and deservedly so. The curiousity factor of an American League team playing a National League team in the regular season was unique at that time. It had never been done before, and MLB reaped that cash cow, setting up a period of the schedule as "interleague week", making it even more special. The natural rivalries of Yankees/Mets, Cubs/White Sox, Angels/Dodgers, and Giants/Athletics created a great buzz about MLB, and were very prosperous undertakings.
But with 15-team leagues, somebody has to play an interleague game every day, and that will dilute the impact of said games. If interleague play becomes routine, what's the point? It won't be special anymore.
So, MLB, I have a solution. Now, first I want to say that I am as big a traditionalist as anyone, moreso, even. But it's time, in the 21st century, for revolution. I say, let's dissolve the National and American Leagues, and have MLB be the one sole entity, split into Eastern and Western Conferences.
The NFL did the same thing for the 1970 season when the AFL merged with them, and the two sides were prescient enough to plan it four years in advance. And the NFL prospered. It is the best-run league in professional sports. Under the leadership of Pete Rozelle, the NFL went from being something to watch when college football wasn't on to must-see television. The NFL became an event, something to build your Sunday around. It has the advantage of playing once a week, and a great national tv presence which allows someone in say, Iowa, to be a Pittsburgh Steeler fan if they so choose. The NFL also has "league-think", whereby the richest franchises realize that in order to build a stronger product, the monies of the league must be distributed in such a way that all teams can compete and have a chance at winning. This is the most underrated part of the NFL's greatness. A 4-12 team one year can become a playoff team the next because every team has a chance to win.
Now contrast that with MLB. First of all, MLB was just a corporate name for a long time. The American and National Leagues were separate entities who genuinely couldn't stand each other. For most of the 111-year history of the two leagues as competing entities, the two leagues didn't coordinate anything with each other, save the World Series and All-Star Game. When expansion was proposed in 1960, the National League agreed to do it in 1962, but the American League jumped the gun, and expanded in 1961. Warren O'Malley, the long-time Dodgers' owner, was particularly contemptuous of the Junior Circuit, thinking it was the lesser league.
The biggest difference between the two leagues came about in 1973 when the American League introduced the Designated Hitter rule. When asked by a reporter if the National League would ever use the DH, NL President Chub Feeney said, "No, we'll continue to play real baseball." And so it has been since then. Can you fathom this? It's like if the CFL merged with the NFL and when an NFL team would come to Canada, they'd have to play with 12 men on a side, three downs, and a longer field. It's pettiness like this that makes MLB a joke.
While the NFL makes decisions after careful thought and discussion, MLB does things by the seat of their pants. Short of dollars? Expand the playoffs! Need more money? Have interleague play? Want equal leagues? Don't do the logical thing and expand to 32 teams, just have two 15-team leagues that play a balanced schedule.
MLB owners don't have "league-think". They are all in it for themselves, and can't agree on a system whereby every team has a chance to compete. In the NFL, the league comes first. IN MLB, it's "I'll get mine, and if you can't get yours, too bad."
I think we should go to an regional system because it would work better. There are so many games in a major league season that one person can't watch them all. And I as a Baltimore Oriole fan (yeah, I know, go ahead and make fun of me) don't really know too much about the Arizona Diamondbacks because their games are on too late, and they are in a different league. I only know about them when they get in the playoffs, as they did in 2011.
Regionalism would do a lot for MLB. It would reduce travel costs by keeping teams in their region. It would promote natural rivalries that actually mean something. Imagine the Yankees and Mets in the same division. Or the Cubs and White Sox. You think those interleague games were intense? See those team play each other 12-18 times a season for the same divisional title and tell me it wouldn't be better for baseball.
It would also give us a college basketball-type feel for baseball. Can you imagine a Southeast division with the Braves, Rays, Marlins, Nationals, and Orioles? Or a California division with all five California teams? That would be great for the game and for MLB. They'd be making money hand over fist.
And it might bring new fans into the game. MLB's problems with bringing youngsters back to baseball has been well-documented. I think this would do it, because there wouldn't be all the games out on the coast starting at 10pm Eastern time. Kids usually go to bed at that time, so they don't have the luxury of watching those games. In a regional setting, all games would be on at a reasonable hour, and kids could watch them. Face it, the NFL doesn't want for young fans. There's plenty of them wearing NFL jerseys or t-shirts on an everyday basis.
If MLB could just get through it's extreme near-sightedness, it could be an even stronger and more relevant organization. I'm not holding my breath, though.