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We may as well talk radical realignment

Let’s indulge baseball’s latest fantasy and/or hellscape

Atlanta Braves v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Last week, Americans prone to panic had a new/old thing to dwell on — the supervolcano under Yellowstone. In the age of aggregation, it’s not always easiest to find the original source of the angst, but I think it stemmed from PBS’ interpretation of a National Geographic story.

The headline: “Yellowstone Supervolcano May Erupt Sooner Than Anticipated.”

But in the story: “Yet a massive eruption in the middle of the U.S. is still an unlikely event. [...] Yellowstone is one of the most closely watched volcanoes in the world. There is a whole suite of sensors and satellites that track any and all detectable changes. For now, at least, geologists aren’t terribly concerned.”

Along the same lines, Baseball America ran a piece from Tracy Ringolsby about the theoretical fallout from a theoretical expansion that has generated a similar amount of angst from fans, at least those whose teams aren’t in the postseason. Unlike the PBS story, there isn’t a paragraph that so easily undermines its headline, but the nut graph is all overstuffed couching (emphasis mine):

There seems to be a building consensus that baseball will soon be headed to a 32-team configuration. It will lead to major realignment and adjustments in schedule, which will allow MLB to address the growing concerns of the union about travel demands and off days.

In other words, there are two things that need to happen before it even starts heading in that direction. Only after a building consensus reaches official consensus can the league start heading in that direction.

Given Rob Manfred’s tendency to let radical ideas waft away rather than rejecting them outright, this seems like another trial balloon without a timeline. But the ideas alternations contained therein get right to the core of what separates baseball from the other leagues.

Chiefly: It features a radical realignment that would do away with the National/American league distinctions and divide a 32-team league (Montreal and Portland) into four eight-team divisions. It’d go all-in on the play-in game concept by settling two of the four divisional series spots that way, with the division winners getting the bye, meaning six of 16 teams will play at least one postseason game every year.

In case you’re wondering what the White Sox’ division would look like:

Midwest: Both Chicago franchises, Colorado, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Texas.

After reading this, I drew two conclusions.

No. 1: I really like the American and National league distinctions for reasons that aren’t entirely logical.

If you were to design a baseball league from scratch, it’d probably look something like what’s described above. Even numbers, geographic priorities, an emphasis on the postseason and, more importantly, everybody playing by the same rules. It’s insane that the American League has the designated hitter and the National League doesn’t.

And yet I’m a fan of that bizarre design for reasons that I may not be able to articulate. For instance, I don’t like that Hawk Harrelson nonchalantly ceded an open ignorance of the National League, because people who are in the business of communicating information to the public should know things ... but I do like that it’s possible to live such a life.

That trait wouldn’t be erased. It’d probably shift from “I only follow the AL” to “I only follow the North,” especially if a shortened schedule (156 games) is more than half composed of divisional games (84 games). That gives it a similar feel to the NBA or NHL.

The argument against that is that those sports treat the regular season as a preseason, and hardcore baseball fans like themselves the 162-game grind. Again, though, if you were designing a baseball league based on what makes sense to contemporary sports fans, postseason uber alles is a hard draw to resist.

As somebody who mentally assigns league affiliations to the United States map — Detroit is American League, Atlanta is National League — the league structure has a stamp on my brain. Habits can and do change when forced, and young fans would look at “American League” references the way I had to ask what “second division” meant.

It just seems like it should be a last resort to me, because as we’ve seen with ballparks, sometimes rushing into the future ends up abandoning what worked. Maybe natural sporting forces will eventually pull baseball into the mid-21st century for the better, but baseball has other things it can fix to address the age gap — like John Lackey needing five minutes to throw six pitches — before considering more drastic measures.

No. 2: The White Sox aren’t going anywhere.

I think most fans have talked themselves down from the relocation ledge, but in case there are any holdouts among your circles, here you go. They are next allowed to panic when 1) the White Sox have the worst stadium issue in the league, and 2) they make the postseason two years in a row and they can’t get out of the bottom third. Even then, that doesn’t seem to affect Cleveland’s existence much.

(Cleveland is an American League city.)