Word has leaked out of early collective bargaining negotiations between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association that, in addition to the usual set of issues involving revenue sharing, luxury taxes and player benefits, the parties are discussing a fundamental change in the structure of the leagues.
Apparently, they are talking about moving one National League club to the American League, giving each circuit 15 teams. Houston would be the perfect candidate for the move, setting up a natural rivalry with the American League club in North Texas. Then the parties would increase the number of teams qualifying for the post-season, adding one from each league.
The proposal may also suggest the elimination of the current divisions, which would be a truly bad idea. Those of us who remember when each league had eight teams recall how dreadful life was for those clubs in the "second division" during the second half of the season. They were doomed, and folks who attended their games either came just for the beer or to catch some rays in the bleachers.
The National League in the 1890s had an even worse system. It had 12 teams in the one major league that remained after the American Association folded. Attendance dwindled and finally the Nationals cut four teams, allowing the rival American League some strong franchises on which to resurrect a competitive circuit. While that would not happen today, the division structure does offer the potential for success deep into the season -- unless you are the Baltimore Orioles and have to face the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays every other week.
I am far more interested in another change to the game, one the parties would have to address through collective bargaining because it directly impacts player jobs. It is absurd that the rules of the game played in the American League differ from the rules of the game in the National League. Yes, I am talking about the designated hitter rule. This legacy of Charlie Finley -- although it was not his idea to begin with -- should be addressed. The fact that the pitcher does not bat in the AL and bats (or tries to) in the NL makes absolutely no sense at all.
The difference in the rules comes to the fore each season during inter-league play and in the World Series. The Red Sox, for example, are about to embark on a nine-day road trip to National League cities. The club's stellar designated hitter having a comeback year -- David "Big Papi" Ortiz -- will not be playing, except perhaps to pinch hit. In the past he would play first base during these NL adventures, but no one is going to sit Adrian Gonzalez. Papi in the outfield would be embarrassing to this fine ballplayer. But the need for uniformity is not just about the Sox. It is about the integrity of the game.
During the first class of Sports Law, we discuss "what is a sport." Obviously, it is a competition which requires physical exertion, but a quintessential element of a sport is the "level playing field." Everyone plays by the same rules. Rule number one is "who plays." Does the pitcher bat or some non-fielding slugger?
Frankly, I don't care which set of rules the parties might agree upon. The Players Association does, of course. Great designated hitters might lose their jobs. National League aficionados are convinced that the "small ball" played by a bunting pitcher and double switches is real baseball and more fun. That's fine with me, but it is hard to argue that in the Bronx the pitcher sits and in Queens he bats (or on the North Side the pitcher bats, but on the South Side he sits). All the minor leagues use the designated hitter rule. Maybe that is the way to go -- but we should urge the powers that be to go somewhere and end up at the same place.
While we are at this fundamental level of analysis, maybe we should outlaw chewing tobacco and constant spitting. Talking about bad role-modeling! I am more than willing to leave that for another day, if they can only get this designated hitter issue aligned. It is one game, and there should be one set of rules.