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Baseball doesn't need radical realignment

ST. PETERSBURG — As concepts go, the one where Major League Baseball implements a floating realignment system is intriguing. It is also flawed, ridiculous, unnecessary and certain to be ignored. But for the moment, let's stick with intriguing.

In case you have not yet heard, commissioner Bud Selig put together a special committee to look at various on-field matters in the game. SportsIllustrated.com has reported that one brainstorm the committee has discussed is a realignment plan where teams would be free to change divisions from year to year based on their needs geographically, economically and competitively.

This is what you might call a radical idea. It is also what you might call doomed. Beyond the logistical problems — and there are many — it is an extreme reaction to a problem that affects only a small number of teams. And that means it will have little support.

What's intriguing is that MLB officials are even talking about this. Which, in terms of Rays fans, is a cause for celebration.

Because realignment can do more for Tampa Bay than a 20-game winner. It can do more than selling an extra 100,000 tickets. Ultimately, realignment could mean the Rays are not stuck in a division where payroll disparity rules the day.

The problem with the issue of realignment is that most teams have little incentive to care about it. Folks in the AL Central don't care if the Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays look like mom & pop operations competing against the conglomerates of the Yankees and Red Sox. And folks in the AL West are thrilled they have only four teams, and thus less competition, in their division.

So the only way realignment would work is on a small scale. You're probably not going to convince a majority of franchises to do a lot of flip-flopping. And it wouldn't be fair to doom other teams by swapping them with the Rays, Orioles or Blue Jays in the AL East's high-rent district.

So what is the answer?

The most simple solution is splitting up the Yankees and Red Sox, and returning to a balanced schedule.

Admittedly, this is not a perfect scenario. It is not even preferred. But given the economic realities and the obvious unfairness in today's system, it may be a necessary step.

For all the supposed talk of competitive balance in the game, it does not exist in the AL East. Since the wild card was introduced in 1995, the winner has come out of the East 11 times. The West has had three wild-card winners, and the Central has produced one in 15 years. That's an overwhelming indication that the East is producing the best teams.

Furthermore, the Yankees or Red Sox have won 12 of the past 13 AL East titles and have been the AL East wild-card representative 10 of those 11 times. That's an overwhelming indication that the East is top-heavy.

So I guess you could say this is not a fluke. And it is not simply that the Yankees and Red Sox are run more efficiently. (Though in recent years, they have been.) It is mostly a cause-and-effect result of having more revenue and higher payrolls.

The commissioner has addressed this issue with revenue sharing and payroll taxes, but it's not enough. Because we're entering another decade of this kind of disparity, he owes it to fans in Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Toronto to level the playing field as much as possible.

And splitting up the Red Sox and Yankees is the easiest way to do that.

The downside is the Yankees and Red Sox have one of sport's greatest rivalries, and putting them in opposite divisions would dilute that. But the truth is, the rivalry was diluted 15 years ago because the wild card meant winning the division was no longer life or death.

The real rivalry for those franchises comes in the postseason, and that would not change if they were in different divisions.

What would change is that the Blue Jays, Orioles and Rays would have a fairer shot at the wild card. If the Yankees continued to dominate the East and the Red Sox emerged as the team to beat in the Central, the Rays would be competing against teams their own size for the wild card.

Returning to a balanced schedule would also help that scenario. It would mean the Red Sox and Yankees could still play each other as much as 12 times a season (instead of the current 18), and it would mean all wild-card teams would be on equal footing.

Granted, none of this is as ambitious as floating realignment. And it's not as radical as mass realignment.

But it is more fair to everyone.

And isn't that the point of competition?

Baseball doesn't need radical realignment 03/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 11, 2010 10:23pm]
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