Volume 2 , Number 10
October , 1997
Ponder the great philosophical questions of mankind:
Alas, if recent reports are anywhere close to accurate, the answer to that last question may be answered as early as next season. Yes, the wise and wonderful Powers That Be in Major League Baseball appear set to embark on the next phase of their "Gosh! We-sure-are-sorry-we cancelled-the-World-Series! Please-don't-hold-it-against-us" campaign : Radical Realignment.
Now, The Professor fancies himself an open-minded guy. He has sat by and watched quietly as baseball's owners have tinkered with the game over the past few years in an effort to boost sagging attendance in the face ff rapidly escalating salaries. Some of the changes have worked, some have not, but the consensus among league owners seems to be that tinkering will no longer do, what baseball needs is a complete overhaul. Thus, a radical realignment along geographical lines which would force as many as 15 teams to switch leagues.
This is not an overhaul, it's a sex change operation.
Now, The Professor does not want to come off as some kind of cry-baby traditionalist. He has lived with the DH and lights at Wrigley Field and so on with no complaints. He accepted a female PA announcer, put up with interleague play, and even applauded the move to the expanded playoff system. The Professor understands that change. while painful, is sometimes necessary and often beneficial.
So why, might you ask, is radical realignment any different from the divisional realignment of a few years ago?
Simple. No teams changed leagues. In baseball, more than any other professional sport, league-loyalty is of paramount importance. The roots of the AL Vs NL rivalry go back even further than the World Series itself. In fact, what should have been the second World Series was never even played because Giants Manager John McGraw refused to play the Boston Red Sox in 1904, calling them representatives of "the inferior league".. It was not the first, and by no means the last, volley in the eternal war between AL and NL fans.
Year after year, one of the most consistently-debated topics in sports is that of league superiority. For a few days every July the conversation in sports bars around the country turns from the pennant races to the AL Vs NL matchup in the All Star game, with Yankee fans allying themselves with Red Sox fans while Giants fans unite with Dodger fans. Each October there is a substantial amount of time dedicated to discussing which league has won how many World Series in a row or out of the last five or ten etc., etc. And one of the most closely watched and hotly-contested races this season was not between Atlanta and Florida or Cleveland and Chicago, but between the National and American Leagues in interleague play.
The crazy thing is, the owners know this, have capitalized on it for years, yet seem intent on ignoring it. They have trotted out a series of polls which they say indicate fans are in favor of radical realignment by as much as a 2-1 margin. Now, the Professor knows a lot of baseball fans and he will tell you in no uncertain terms that these numbers are a crock of (unprintable). Virtually all of the baseball fans the Professor has discussed the issue with would sooner see their only child call another man "Daddy" as see their team go to "that other league".
So why are the owners trying so hard to convince fans that this is what they want? Why are they pushing so hard? Easy. They're morons. A quick look at attendance figures reveals a 20% increase in attendance of interleague games over "regular" games. This rise was probably due largely to the novelty of it all, a chance for fans to see their team play a team they had never played before. It was interesting and the trend probably would have continued for a few years before the novelty wore off and interleague attendance leveled off with the rest of the games. The owners, however, saw that 20% rise and jumped to the entirely wrong conclusion. They decided that what the numbers suggested was that what fans really want is change, and lots of it. So, under the "More is Better" school of logic, the owners revealed their radical realignment proposal.
Believe The Professor when he says that the "thud" this plan produces when it lands with be heard on Mars. There will be a short-term boost in casual fan interest due to the novelty factor and that might be enough to convince owners that they did the right thing. But when the smoke clears and the casual fans are gone, driven off by the high ticket prices, expensive beer, lousy parking, spoiled millionaire-ballplayers, and an overall lack of interest, the owners will be sitting around scratching their heads and wondering what they can do to boost fan interest. Another realignment? More "roll-back-the-clock" days? Something else to alienate and drive off the core fan base?
Fans care about league affiliation, more so now in a time when players bounce from team to team and even teams move from city to city. The problems that plague baseball cannot be cured by interleague play or realignment or any other half-baked idea. Lower ticket prices, more accessible players, fewer scandals, cheaper parking, lower beer prices, good pitching, good hitting, and hotly-contested pennant races are the only things that will bring fans back into the ball park on a permanent basis. But then, what does The Professor know, he's just a fan.