Each of the four major professional sports in America — basketball, hockey, football and baseball — uses the same basic format to divide up their leagues: two separate conferences, each divided into divisions based primarily on location.
The NHL and NBA are most similar to each other, each having an Eastern and Western Conference with three divisions of five teams for a total of 30 teams (although it is notable that in both sports, the division lines dissolve when it comes to playoff spots, which are decided on the basis of overall record independent of division).
The NFL has 32 teams, so their divisions are slightly different. With 16 teams in both the American Football Conference (AFC) and National Football Conference (NFC), there are four divisions in each conference: East, North, South and West. Each division has four teams. The four division winners — plus the two non-division winners with the best records — from each conference advance to the playoffs.
The MLB is a little different. There are 30 professional baseball teams (although the Houston Astros barely qualify this year), so a NBA/NHL style league seems appropriate. Instead, however, the National League and American League are misaligned — the former has 16 teams, with two divisions of five and one of six, while the latter has 14 teams, with two divisions of five and one of four. The winners of each division advance to the playoffs, along with the second-place team with the best record from each league (dubbed the “wild card” team).
The curious divisional imbalance is not due to historical happenstance or tradition, but rather it was a conscious decision by Major League Baseball when the league expanded from 28 to 30 teams in 1997. Before the addition of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks, each league had 14 teams. Adding one team to each league would keep the leagues even. Seems like the logical decision, right?
Well, not quite. Unlike the NHL and NBA, Major League Baseball teams do not regularly play teams from outside their league. Thus, having an odd number of teams in each league would leave one team with no opponent for 3-4 days.
Disaster? Hardly. It would, however, greatly extend a regular season that already spans roughly half of the calendar year and create logistical problems that no one is quite sure how to deal with.
So, in 1997 the MLB went from 28 teams in a 14/14 split to 30 teams in a 14/16 split (the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks went to opposite leagues, but the Milwaukee Brewers simultaneously jumped from the American League to the National League to maintain even numbers in both leagues).
The theory is sound, but the problem is that it’s not fair to have one division with four teams and one with six.
Baseball is a game of details. But like the butterfly effect, each detail contributes to the larger path a team takes throughout the season. Because the season is so long and often arduous (they play 162 games in roughly 180 days), it can be easy to devalue the importance of a single game. But it becomes clear in September, as many division and wild card races come down to the wire, that a single game can be the difference between making the playoffs and watching them from home.
The point is that in baseball, everything affects everything.
I’m not a baseball purist in the sense that I think we should make every effort possible to play the game exactly as it was created in the 1800s. But I am a purist in the sense that I want the game — the stats and the standings — to be true and fair.
The fact is that you play a different game — from the very first pitch of the season — when you’re competing with five other teams versus three other teams for a playoff spot. And the purist in me says that if these teams are competing for the same prize, they ought to be playing the same game.
There are a number of ways that the MLB could amend this unfortunately misalignment. Here are a few:
1. Add two more teams.It’s not that I’m dying to see the Buffalo Blizzards face off against the New Orleans Cajuns, but this is one possibility for bringing the leagues back into balance. With two leagues of 16, however, the MLB would still be left with the problem of odd-sized divisions — each league would have two divisions of five and one of six. Unless they re-mapped their divisions to match the NFL, with four divisions of four, this is an unlikely solution for a league already struggling to find fans in some of its smaller markets.
2. Get rid of two teams. Success comes in cycles in baseball, with very few teams consistently finishing at the top or bottom of their division (obviously certain teams buck this trend — the Pirates are currently in the midst of their first winning season in 18 years, and the Yankees, well…they’re the Yankees). Axing two teams based on performance would be difficult, especially since some of the more futile teams are also some of the oldest and most historic (Cubs, Orioles, Royals, etc.). It would probably be smarter to pluck the lowest hanging fruit in terms of attendance, as that gives a better indication of what a team is accomplishing in terms of revenue. Florida, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay consistently bring up the rear in yearly attendance — if anyone deserves to get axed, it’s them.
3. Use interleague play to your advantage. Above, I noted that the difficulty with odd-numbered leagues is that teams don’t regularly play teams from the opposite league. The key word there is regularly. Since 1997, teams have played interleague games during a few weeks of the year, matching up with cross-league rivals for rare and exciting series. Thus far, teams have played these games all at once, first during one weekend in May and then later in the season, for a week or so in June. I propose a different model: one interleague series happening at all times. While the rest of the 28 teams match up with opponents from their own league, two teams from opposite leagues face off. The MLB scheduling gurus could ensure that teams play their cross-town or in-state rivals (Mets vs. Yankees, Angels vs. Dodgers, Astros vs. Rangers, etc.), sprinkling the excitement and intrigue of interleague play throughout the season.
Ultimately, it just doesn’t make sense to having unequal leagues. Though they remain separate for much of the season, it seems strikingly unfair that the American League champion must best 13 other teams, while the National League champ has to top a field of 16. It’s time to restore balance back to the MLB.
Ian Trombulak is a rising senior at Middlebury College, and is interning at the Addison Independent as a news reporter and member of the online team this summer. He likes sports — a lot — and, as with most things he likes, he spends a lot of time thinking about them. He hopes that you enjoy the cathartic weekly release of those thoughts, and that you will share yours as well in the comments below.