Odds are, realignment that impacts the Pittsburgh Pirates and all of Major League Baseball si a question of when, not if. But will it be a good thing for baseball?
Time causes change and change causes frustration. Baseball is a sport that defines itself by its history. If you ask fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates or baseball in general who is the greatest player of all time, a short list of acceptable answers probably comes to mind. Ruth, Mays, Aaron, and Mathewson.
It would be considered sacrilege to name any modern players. In forty years, Trout might join that list but do not dare name him now. Baseball is a game of numbers, but in reality, those numbers are just manifestations of history, making baseball a game of history.
Fans try to hold onto the history as long as they can as the game changes around them. That is the nature of the world. The players change, the leagues change, and baseball changes. The 2023 season saw plenty of change with the new rules, but another major change is likely coming soon with league expansion. And while this change might make many fans nervous, it also brings an opportunity for honoring the history of the game and keeping up with modern times.
In an article for The Athletic, Jim Bowden proposes that when MLB inevitably goes to 32 teams, the league could reorganize into a model like the NFL: eight divisions of four teams, based on geography. We could see divisions like the East Division with the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, and Phillies in the same division. If you are anything like me, you just about spit out your coffee after reading that because it goes against the history of the game and long-time traditions. But the addition of two new teams would create a chance to try something both old and new.
Now, hear me out. I would love for baseball to go back to the classic style of no divisions. Since divisions were created in 1969, baseball has been missing something, but I understand their necessity, particularly relating to the playoffs. With the money involved, we have only and will only see more playoff games, not less, but baseball does not need to abandon everything to become a modern league.
So, here is my proposal. Instead of eight divisions of four teams, reverse that and make four divisions of eight teams. This makes sense for multiple reasons. For one, it honors the history of the league. Let us use the National League specifically.
In 1958, the National League had only eight teams, with the final standings being the Braves, Pirates, Giants, Redlegs, Cubs, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Phillies. To many people, this is what traditional baseball should look like instead of the likely coming four-team divisions.
You then might ask, what could the divisions look like? There could be the NL East with New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Washington, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati and a new team in Charlotte. An NL West of LA, San Francisco, Arizona, Colorado, San Diego, St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee.
This would keep historic rivalries still in place, re-establishing previous ones, and possibly creating new ones. You keep the Dodgers/Giants, Cardinals/Cubs, etc. and you would also bring back the Pirates/Phillies as a great rivalry.
Regarding the playoffs, you would still see the current format of six teams. The two division winners would receive automatic byes and begin in the NLDS, while the four wildcard teams (two from each division) would play each other. This would reward teams for winning their divisions, while also eliminating the current scenario of one division winner having to play in the wildcard series. There should be value in being the best team over 162 games instead of only rewarding the teams that get hot at the right time.
Baseball is a local marathon. The season is defined by the long grind, the dog days of August, rivalries, and the pennant chase down the line. Baseball needs to make sure all of these continue, and small divisions of four teams put these at risk. Large divisions can keep the traditions of baseball intact while also moving into the next generation.