Major League Baseball needs to close up a tunnel to their Postseason — the very one I hope my Cleveland Guardians utilize this October.Over the past few years, the American League Central might as well be known as the "Loophole Division." Play your home games in this particular region of the country and you could conceivably be the AL’s tenth-best club (based on win percentage) and get included in the top six. Worse, the potential exists for a bottom-half team to masquerade as worthy of the playoff bracket's 3 seed — recognized with hosting a Wild Card Series. Undeserving Postseason insertion is bad enough; up to three home games (and a favorable match-up) are a bridge too far.
Everything surrounding current Postseason access is the crux of my "Send Tito out to pasture" frustration. If he can’t take full advantage of the modern rules this year — with a current division leader sitting at 41-42 — then he's not the proper caretaker of the youth movement in Cleveland. It’s the lowest barrier to entry on the game board at present. 87 wins might just hang a banner that doesn’t say "Wild Card"! If you can’t compile that bare minimum body of work — a season after 92 wins, a 2-1 series lead in the ALDS, and the 2023 roster only getting better and more established — then you should be gone.
Okay, enough about my personal reasons for therapy and more about Major League Baseball's issues. Each member of the AL Central, including those Twins, would currently fall below the Red Sox for fifth place in the American League East. Framed using this context: The Central's automatic qualifier, comparable to another division's SIXTH PLACE team, would punch a ticket to compete for a World Championship. This is a gift from baseball heaven.
But... it's also one I believe should not last. We're not dealing with March Madness, where the story of a .500 team getting hot in its conference tournament makes for a fun First Four anecdote. This is Major League Baseball and the 119th playing of the Fall Classic. The stakes are a little bit higher here.
For proof the format is creating unfit Postseason candidates, look no further than the National League Central to find [checks notes] the EXACT SAME scenario. One pilgrim alone is a zealot. But two pilgrims together; that's a pilgrimage. Baseball Reference's Detailed Standings of all 30 teams is the perfect visual for these wild times. Names in bold denote division leaders. Look at just how many better records are above those Brewers and Twins:
If the unspoken rationale for a Major League Baseball season being this long is to provide ample runway for the best teams to identify themselves, then the system has routinely failed. And the current playoff format, in just its second year of existence, is on an all-too-familiar path toward snubbery. Someone deserving is going to be left out in the cold; perhaps multiple someones.
Stealing their seat at the table will be at least one "unqualified" franchise, afforded house money to shock the world. After all, a mediocre 13-9 Postseason record (.590 winning percentage) is enough to raise the Commissioner's Trophy — provided the losses do not come in bunches. Tampa Bay almost navigated this minefield to perfection in 2020, the Covid-necessitated precursor to the modern format. The Rays were a pedestrian 11-9 overall that Postseason, but that it was good enough for an AL Pennant and forcing a Game 6 in the World Series.
Point being: Get in and all bets are off; the hot streak necessary isn't as scorching as one might expect. By not being among the 18 clubs eliminated on the final day of the regular season, the harder work has arguably been done. House money kicks in.
And that's the issue. If geographical alignment protects a club that should be watching the playoffs at home, seeing it through to a fluky Championship is no worse than +3000 odds. They've fallen up this far, what's another four weeks?
I have a big problem wrong with this. Because of how short the playoffs really are, I want only the best teams vying for the title.
Let's say a "good but not great" NFL team hits the 10-win plateau in the new 17-game schedule. Undoubtedly not earning a bye, they would need to produce 40% of their regular-season win total — without a single loss mixed in — to lift the Lombardi Trophy. An NBA team of comparable middle-of-the-standings resume amasses ~45 wins on an annual basis. The 2022-23 Miami Heat team, which appeared in the Finals as an 8 seed, only got to 44. With four rounds of four wins, their playoff run required a 36.3% reprise of what was accomplished from October-April.
The World Champion Denver Nuggets posted a formidable 53 victories in the regular season and got their 16 (30.2%) in the playoffs. Similarly great baseball teams have to do a third of that work. It's really the only way to explain the success of teams like the 2000 Yankees, 2006 & 2011 Cardinals, 2014 Giants, and 2021 Braves. Each won it all despite having 90 or fewer regular-season wins. Arguably, the entire 21st century has been more flukes than #1 overall seeds.
It's due to the fact that the sport is overly front-loaded: Six months to thin the herd and only play one more.
87 regular season wins in any other sport is literally impossible. It's more than the 2023 Eastern Conference Champions (Miami Heat and Florida Panthers) combined. But such a season falls into the "good but not great" category for Major League Baseball. In a vacuum, the quantity and frequency of winning that much/often is commendable. In this year's loaded American League East, it might not be good enough for third place.
Should a playoff team sneak in with 87 wins, they only need to come up with 14.9% of their regular-season win total during the playoffs. Win 105 ballgames and bypass the Wild Card round? You only have to "prove it" by recreating 10.4% of the completed work featured in the portfolio.
This could all change in an instant, however. The year that MLB ultimately expands to 32 clubs is the year that this mess of a bracket could start to make sense; start to require a larger percentage of the regular season's elite play be matched.
Growth To 32, Yet Maintaining The Status Quo On Playoff Quantity
The days of three divisions in both the American and National League are clearly numbered. Major League Baseball expansion is coming during Rob Manfred's time as commissioner. And, in that, everyone with a basic understanding of arithmetic knows clubs will be grouped into either twos, fours, or eights. Three and six ain't going into 32 smoothly.
The solution is sitting on the table, but it isn't a guarantee that league executives don't muck it up by tweaking too many variables in the equation. Should "the smart guys" decide to abandon all AL/NL ways of life — now that the designated hitter and persistent Interleague Play are universal — they will lose this fan for good. I'm clearly receptive to a little change, but not prepared to get The Bends.
I've already had to [begrudgingly] give up what I call my favorite team since 1993. 12 year-old me: The Indians play at Jacobs Field. 36 year-old me: The Guardians play at Progressive Field. Somehow, I'm supposed to pretend both of those statements have always said the same thing. Reconditioning my brain to embrace this was plenty; "up" is already "down" in enough ways. For several close friends, these semantic adjustments were enough to make them divest all MLB passion.
Relaunching a "National Conference" — containing Cleveland, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minnesota and both Chicago teams, as an example — bastardizes the very framework of this game's great past. It might make logistical sense, but that will be the day I'm officially comfortable no longer following along. That's much more than a name change; it's Etch-A-Sketch-ing everything drawn heretofore and starting over. I don't feel I'd be alone in using that as the moment for a clean break.
I don't truly remember the Brewers ever being in the American League, but I definitely recall the Astros playing in the NL. A one-off League transfer like that was unsettling enough for my OCD desires for continuity. Swapping the affiliation of a dozen is an inflection point in baseball's timeline that would literally kill me. With a rare exception (perhaps a Colorado to the AL), the sanctity of the American League and National League must survive this next wave of expansion.
Like many of the best football (soccer) strategies throughout the years, you sometimes have to go backwards to go forward. In this context, it means a pre-1994 look to the standings, but with the playoff entry mechanisms of today. My proposed realignment looks like this:
Playoff expansion should not come with any league expansion. I'll scream it until the day I die: An eight-team bracket in both the American and National Leagues would take too long, negate the need for any regular-season game quantity beyond 150, and also water down the exclusivity of Postseason qualification. Keep it simple, stupid. Six participants per league, two byes, and two best-of-three "play-in" series need to be locked in as the constants.
The craziness surrounding 2020's Covid year gave us a glimpse at what a 16-team MLB bracket could look like full-time. And, while I understood the competitive balance need for it — in an abbreviated 60-game regular season — I never want to see the likes of it again. That wasn't baseball.
The whole ordeal ran from September 29 to October 27. If that fell on the heels of a 162-game schedule, even this MLB junkie would be saying "No Más!"
I'm here for Cinderella showing up in certain sports, but baseball has a unique limit on parity, in terms of fan appetite. The explanation is quite simple: What's the point of playing 27 days a month from April-September if an 8 seed can knock you out in two days? There's no tolerance for a mini losing skid.
Worse, the 2020 Brewers were 29-31 and made it in, suggesting sub-.500 clubs would show up for Postseason play on an annual basis. Leave that nonsense for the small sample size of the NFL.
Allowing half the field to make The Dance isn't baseball's M.O., either. That's the NBA and NHL's schtick. Both leagues opened the floodgates to 16 participants in the '80s. Slowly but surely, expansion has brought down the percentage of those that do make it versus those that don't, but not to a point where any casual fan overly cares about the regular season. "Wake me up when we're in."
Now, with completed expansion, hockey is finally back down to 50% inclusion (16 out of 32). Much better than the 76.2% (16 of 21) first introduced in 1980, but still not my ideal. Fundamentally, a regular season doesn't accomplish anything if a majority advance.
In recent years, basketball has gone the opposite direction. With a new play-in tournament, 20 out of 30 NBA teams qualify for some form of the postseason bracket. Giving two-thirds of the league a chance at a title is a monstrosity.
Remember, we're talking about baseball. The 1968 pennant winners — Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals — didn't receive a hat and t-shirt for winning a Wild Card Series; didn't strap on the ski goggles and soak the clubhouse in champagne and beer. They just went directly to the World Series. Ho hum. That was only 55 years ago. A life without any playoffs in Major League Baseball is not exactly ancient history.
Hell, the first Division Series didn't take place until 1995. Suddenly, we're talking about adding a full round in advance of that — in which no one gets a division-winning exemption? That's gonna be a "no" from me, dawg. Growing the playoffs from ostensible nothingness to 16 participants, inside of two generations, is a pendulum swing too extreme.
The Goldilocks Principle asserts people of my father's age are equally wrong in the opposite way. Having no playoffs wasn't pinnacle baseball either. True, the objective was clearly understood by all parties on Opening Day: Finish atop the AL or NL and you earned that World Series berth. But old timers yearn for a return to this way of life because of selective memory. It's easy to look upon the format fondly in the glow of Championship years, when playing for a trophy meant there was no multi-round gauntlet to endure. What happens to that logic when the local ball club is 9.0 games back by the end of May? How quickly we expunge those occurrences from the mind. With only one way in, that is a real possibility.
Thus, I'm proposing we turn back the clock, but not thaaaaat far.
Impartially, many things have changed for the better since 1968. The Wild Cards are a beautiful blend old-school and new. They keep more teams in the hunt, deeper into the year — making a better on-field product. Teams like the 2023 Seattle Mariners aren't on life support, 8.5 games behind the West-leading Texas. Flip over to the Wild Card Standings tab and the GB shrinks to 3.0.
This arrangement feels so organic to me. The fundamental building blocks to the plan have been living (albeit dormant) inside the sport all along. It is a Base Eight league; always has been. For 59 seasons of Major League Baseball, a fan/player/manager/owner could open up the newspaper to find their ballclub sitting in 8th place... and be none too pleased about it. And it may sound strange or sadistic to want to see this scenario make a comeback, but the context around cellar dwelling has changed.
The glowing example of how my proposal rights wrongs can be found in the San Francisco Giants from 1993. That club won 103 games, but did not qualify for the NLCS that year — still the only round of the playoffs at that time. It could be argued that denying the second-best team in all of baseball a spot in the playoffs played a role in everything that transpired over the 18 months that followed. This list includes the establishment of the Wild Card and six divisions, labor unrest over a salary cap and revenue sharing, and a vacant commissioner's chair.
The Future of Major League Baseball Visualized
In a previous piece, I outlined how a Nashville MLB franchise (that feels inevitable) must belong with the National League. A simple map bears this out. Tennessee doesn't do anything to the American League's geography, other than keep Seattle on an island, and firmly place an expansion team on a new one.
Nashville in the AL would also make the NL break up the Brewers and Cubs, which doesn't make much logistical sense. They are on the same longitude — the west coast of Lake Michigan — and less than an hour from one another. If that's not a division rival, what is?
Relocating Tampa Bay is not something I want to do. But it becomes really enticing when you look at my AL East map. It's already so northern based; Montreal would do so well in that cluster. Even Charlotte brings up the epicenter over 500 miles.
Addressing 162 (And The Best-Of-Five Division Series) While We're At It
My only qualm with the current configuration is a five-game Division Series. Baseball's an odd duck in many departments, including this one. Applying the NHL's "Second Season" rationale, a 162-game regular season should be met with a 55-game playoff. Instead, the maximum length is a modest 22 games.
Since the NBA switched its first round from best-of-five to best-of-seven in 2003, Major League Baseball has become the one applicable holdout in North American sports. The only issue with such a plan for baseball is time. We're already creeping deep into the frigid November calendar as is. However, watching a team with a bye get eliminated after three losses doesn't seem right either.
There's also the issue of rest/rust in which the five-game Division Series turns a bye into an unwanted reward. The risk is high of running into a buzzsaw with the margin for error limited to two slip-ups. A third clunker can end an incredible season before it ever really begins. I certainly had my speculations going into the 2022 Postseason. And the predictions turned out to be spot on, as the National League's #1 (Los Angeles) and #2 (Atlanta) both lost their first match-ups.
This round has to morph into a best-of-seven, to let the cream rise to the top. If nothing else, the bye should earn these teams an extra loss to play around with. With eight days between games (final regular-season game on October 2, ALDS/NLDS Game 1 on October 11) they deserve a chance to get their feet back underneath them.
Some leagues view playoff duration as a point of pride. It is a grind that always crowns the most-deserving champion. The NHL not only embraces its "Second Season" nickname, but markets it as such. While the playoff quantity never truly comes close to a second full helping of 82 games, teams could end up playing a schedule that is 34.2% the length of the regular season. With a new play-in game for the NBA, an 8 seed could end up playing 30 games after their traditional 82. That is an insane 36.6%. Baseball is a relative sprint by comparison; a maximum of 13.6% for those that require the Wild Card Series. Is the answer more playoff baseball games? The fan appetite and weather don't seem to suggest "yes."
This isn't to say that the general public finds Postseason baseball games less exciting than playoff NHL match-ups. More of the former is definitely welcomed by all; October baseball is high drama and fun to be a part of. The key difference between sports is in total quantity of games from Opening Day to trophy presentation. Even with four full rounds — and a maximum of 28 additional games — the NHL's potential total can only ever get to 110. Baseball's 162 plus 21-23 (depending on bye status) teeters on excessive. No one is here for watching/playing 185 games a year. Perhaps it is the regular-season quantity that needs the change.
Analyzing The Future System Using Today's Data
The standings as of June 18, 2023 are impeccable at depicting my point. I literally could not ask for a better real-world example to show the differences between the current format and my proposed.
Huge caveat: The records will undoubtedly change come September. We're not likely to see preseason contenders such as the Mets, Mariners, Padres, and Guardians stay buried in the middle of the pack all Summer. Similarly, there's a chance the Twins and Brewers start to pull away and make the records of the Central Division Champions respectable.
The following is the crapola that would be bestowed upon baseball fans, if the season ended tonight. Ya know, after the city of New York hosted ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball for what felt like the 19th time this season:
Change the names on the seed lines, but the exact same scenario is playing out in the National League.
As punishment for underachieving, the 6-seed Los Angeles Dodgers would get to beat up on the Milwaukee Brewers — while their division rival San Francisco Giants would have to fly to Miami to take on a gritty, up-and-coming Marlins squad. How does that make any sense? The better finisher in the NL West would draw the tougher out. Conceivably, the Giants could tank the last few games of the regular season to back into that sixth spot. Strike three. Laugh and dismiss, but it's a plausible strategy; one that shouldn't have to ever be entertained.
Part of the reason San Francisco would even consider it is because they, like the Angels in the AL, would be forced to travel when they shouldn't have to. So, if you're already destined to play a Wild Card Series on the road — with a ceiling that is the 5 seed — why wouldn't you play the match-ups and seek out the 6?
My proposal also allows the Phillies to sneak in and provides a glimmer of hope for repeat magic to their 6-seed World Series appearance last year. Having both of last year's pennant winners watching from the couch isn't right. Sure, they could be playing better baseball. But they're definitely playing better than Minnesota and Milwaukee.
Admittedly, the September standings won't look much like they do mid-June. However, seeing all five teams from the AL East do what they've done so far perfectly illustrates some hypothetical possibilities that the contemporary structure would be ill-equipped to handle. In other words, the wrong teams would be included and much of the seeding would be incorrect — undermining the whole purpose of the regular season.In short: A three-division format will always be broken if one isn't treated the same as the others. Having more division winners than byes works for the NFL, because it's not just a singular odd duck per conference.
But then in the last two years, the expanded quantity of Wild Cards doled out rendered this ideology moot. Who needs the floor to raise if you have three additional Postseason spots that could care less what division you come from? Last place is no longer a death march. Real world example: There's not a single Boston fan paying any attention to the GB column (which stands at 14.5) in the AL East. With the Rays playing .700 ball, the only thing that matters from now until October 1 is the horizontal line separating sixth from seventh in the Wild Card standings. It's the cut line in a golf tournament. Unless you're playing them directly, Tampa Bay's record means nothing to you.
Scoreboard watching would transition from games containing geographic rivals to those in places like Houston and Los Angeles. That doesn't seem totally right, either. So why not blend a little bit of the regionality back to this contemporary open access (i.e. college football independent status) to the playoffs?
That's the modern concept we'll keep. We'll now graft it off and stitch it up to the old ways. The current format has never worked quite right. But I believe it was simply ahead of its time. It needed the right divisional breakdown for it to really show off its capabilities.
Go back to two divisions with byes the reward for winning. There would be fewer occurrences of a second-place team finishing above everyone else in the league. That, or seed every single playoff team on overall record and be done with it. Beginning two years ago, the NBA rescinded a vow it used to make to division winners — no longer guaranteeing them seeds 1-3 in each conference. The Utah Jazz, winners of the Northwest Division in May, were the West's 5 seed.
Point is, even in a lopsided/topsy-turvy year, you could never call anyone that stands atop a division with seven names below theirs a fluke. The same isn't true in clusters of only four. Sure, there's a "Group of Death" every World Cup, but there's also a group that — purely on merit — shouldn't see any of its members advance to the knockout round. Only having to be better than three others leads to weak resumes slipping through. Over the course of the division's realigned history, winning the NFC [L]East has had folks questioning "Why do any of these four teams get to play football in January?"
It's reminiscent of Gary Gulman's state abbreviations bit. The task starts off so promising that it seems like it'll be buttoned up in five minutes. Working your way down the Atlantic coast, the AL East would consist of Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay. Done. Easy. Even if Tampa Bay has to leave town for Montreal or Charlotte, the geographic cluster would remain the same.
Similarly circling teams in the Pacific Time Zone, your AL West would be Seattle, expansion Portland (or Salt Lake City), Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Neat and tidy. Next.
Clubs around the Great Lakes, east to west... Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago. Ope. What do you do with Minnesota? Which of those clear-cut Northerners are you throwing in the South with Kansas City, Texas, and Houston? It's a non-starter; all five cities are above the 41st parallel.
The same problems occur in the National League. An East with New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami (straight down I-95) is nearly identical to its American League counterpart. It works too well to not press on, right? The trouble is you run into all sorts of ways to conveniently cluster NL teams in threes and fives, but not fours.
San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona, and Colorado — our contemporary NL West — are so isolated that dropping one is illogical; exacerbating an island effect. Colorado ain't exactly "North." Furthermore, Pittsburgh and Colorado being division mates would create one hell of a competitive/travel distance imbalance. Toss the Rockies in the NL South and you turn your back on a delightful 300-mile-radius circle you could draw around expansion Nashville that encompasses Cincinnati, Atlanta, and St. Louis.
The solution is so much easier. American League cities west of the Mississippi [River] are West; east are East. The same is true-ish of the National League, with the exception of Milwaukee and Chicago. I picture that little plastic piece that's used in the grocery store's checkout line — separating our belongings from that of the next customer. North America's longest river has conveniently split our country down the "middle" for centuries. It can continue to do so in the AL; divider just needs nudged over to Lake Michigan for the NL.
History Lesson: The Greatest NL West Team That Never Was
St. Louis, Missouri was the westernmost MLB city from 1892 — when the Perfectos joined the National League — up until 1955 when the Athletics moved to Kansas City.
Baseball certainly lagged behind western population growth in America. As recently as 1952, half the National League could be found inside the states of New York and Pennsylvania. Because of its seclusion, and the onset of radio's vast reach, the "Gateway to the West" built up a gigantic geographic fan territory. Despite its small-market status, the results at the gate are still being felt today.
My self-imposed research assignment: What if (2) four-team divisions had existed in both Leagues since day one?
If the long-standing MLB era of 16 total teams (1903-1961) had been broken into divisions, St. Louis would have played in the National League West — with Chicago, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. Yes, you read that right. Post-World War II baseball was still treating its map in colonial ways; Western PA was the Wild West/frontier compared to its Atlantic epicenter. New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Boston would have constituted this revisionist historian's NL East. Ironically, of that group, only the Phillies still reside where they used to call home.
Life would have carried on without any disruptions for half a century. Only when Boston moved to Milwaukee (1953) would any type of division juggling have occurred — Pittsburgh to the East and the Braves to the West.
Here is the shocker: Even when the Dodgers and Giants jumped to the Pacific Coast, for the start of the 1958 season, the Cardinals still would have been in a four-team NL West (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Milwaukee, St. Louis).
As expansion and further relocation entered the foray, this setup would have remained the case up and through 1969 — the year MLB divisions were formally created. The expansion Mets and Colt .45s (1962) wouldn't have tipped the geographic scales in any way to make St. Louis "East." The same is true of Milwaukee moving to Atlanta in 1966. Both events did nothing but cement the Cardinals were members of the National League crew "out west."
For much of the late '50s and early '60s, the battle in the Senior Circuit was waged between St. Louis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The NL pennant winner hailed from one of those cities eight times from 1959-1968. The Giants/Dodgers rivalry was clear and obvious, but those Giants/Cardinals and Dodgers/Cardinals affairs were just as deep-seeded and real.
Then, in 1969, the story took a turn toward lunacy. St. Louis and Chicago were shipped to the inaugural NL East Division, while Cincinnati and Atlanta were gobbled up by the West. Huh?
Back in 2019, Creg Stephenson wrote the best article on this topic for The Hardball Times — part of the FanGraphs family. The CliffsNotes version goes a little something like this: The American League owners had a conscious geographic plan for growth to 12 teams, split into two. Meanwhile, the anti-playoff National League owners got caught in an 11th-hour scramble to make sense of their new expanded map. After a compromise was struck on regular season length (162 games), the latter opted for the Big Ten's [failed] Legends and Leaders approach. Commissioner Spike Eckert scorned natural order, as well as several requests by clubs to either associate or disassociate with certain "neighbors." If you can't make everyone happy, make nobody happy.
"If expansion was to come about, as it was, then this seemed to be the logical thing to do," St. Louis general manager Bing Devine told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "And although the Cardinals won’t play teams such as Los Angeles and San Francisco as much now, we won’t lose contact with them for good. In our division, we will have Chicago, and the rivalry between the Cubs and Cardinals has always been a good one… I recognize that from a rivalry standpoint, a division with St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco could have been the most interesting."
In my humble opinion, grouping in this manner was a monumental mistake. A National League West, comprised of Los Angeles, San Francisco, expansion San Diego, Houston, St. Louis, and Chicago would have made an impeccable division from 1969-1992. With the NL's expansion to 14 franchises in 1993, the quality would have only increased with the inclusion of Colorado.
Note: This arrangement would have left New York, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, expansion Montreal, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia in the East. Florida was their 1993 addition.
By my calculations — scanning National League standings for second- or third-place finishes behind "Eastern" teams — the Cardinals would have won an astonishing 20 National League West titles prior to 1969's divisional establishment. 1914, 1917, 1936, 1941, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1952 would have been added to the 12 pennants they won outright: 1926, 1928, 1930, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1946, 1964, 1967, and 1968.
Revise a little bit more history — "keeping" St. Louis in the West from 1969 through the creation of the Central (1994) — and the Cardinals would have added four more banners: 1971*, 1982, 1985, and 1987. In reality, the Cardinals won the NL East in 1982, 1985, and 1987. In a standings swap of St. Louis/Chicago for Atlanta/Cincinnati, the Cardinals' record in each of those years would have also won the West.
* In 1971, with equal 90-72 records, St. Louis and San Francisco would have played in an exciting "Winner Takes the West" Game 163. It would have been the first-ever division-title-deciding contest in history (fifth win-or-go-home tiebreaker overall). My assumption is that Bob Gibson or Steve Carlton would have outdueled Gaylord Perry or Juan Marichal.
With 1994, Major League Baseball found itself in uncharted waters. There was labor unrest (not new, but the first time it rose to the level of canceling a World Series), and a fresh new division/playoff structure. Though six divisions were implemented in '94, the awarding of baseball's first-ever Wild Cards (each League's best second-place club) and Central Division Champions would have to wait until October the following year.
St. Louis shifted to the NL Central and has lived in that division every year since. In those 27 full seasons, the Cardinals have won 12 more titles (1996, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2019, 2022).
All told, that equates to 36 Division Championships — using my pre-1969 rationale. That number is good, but is a distant second all-time to New York's [adjusted] 57 American League East crowns. For reference, the Highlanders/Yankees would have initially been in a foursome with the Senators (Washington), Americans/Red Sox (Boston), and Athletics (Philadelphia). This would have lasted up until 1953, when the the St. Louis Browns' relocated to Baltimore and rebranded as the Orioles. The move would have conveniently swapped an East for a West, as the A's relocated to Kansas City the following year.
When the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels created a ten-team American League in 1961, both would have gone to the West, forcing Cleveland to become the East's fifth member. American League executives clearly passed all geography classes in elementary school. Their institution of divisional play (in 1969) was right on the money. And they haven't looked back since.
The randomness surrounding alignment and the St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Atlanta does present some wild opportunities, however. If Major League Baseball subscribes to my (2) 8-team division proposal, then some anomalies come into play. Because of their poorly placement in the East, the Cardinals and Cubs would have a chance to become the first team to have an East, Central, and West Division Championship on their resume. They would simply have to win the new NL West before the Reds snag the NL East — last one missing in their collection. What a race amongst rivals that would be.
Also in contention for that feat, under very different circumstances, is the Chicago White Sox. Now, Chicago has always been a swing city in professional sports. The Chicago Fire have practically skipped rope with Major League Soccer's geographic line: 1998-1999 Western Conference, 2000-2001 Central Division, 2002-present Eastern Conference.
The Bulls (NBA) currently play in the Eastern Conference, but they entered in 1966-67 as members of the West Division. It was 1980-81 before the lasting switch occurred, precipitated by a flurry of new franchises west of Chicago — Buffalo relocated to San Diego, New Orleans relocated to Utah, and Dallas came in as an expansion team over the course of three seasons.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks/Black Hawks have played in the National Hockey League's Western Conference each and every season since its 1993-94 birth. True, there was a West Division from 1967-1974 — which didn't include Chicago straight away — but that doesn't really count. "West" was a catch-all designation for the six lumped-together expansion clubs, opposite the established "East." It had nothing to do with regions of North America. On top of that, four of those "Original Six" weren't charter members of anything. The label is a modern creation; a clever marketing trick to put some PR spin on contraction that occurred during WWII. Prior to the '40s, the divisional split was simply American and Canadian, ranging between 8-10 teams in a given year.
Everything in between was squirrely and geographically amorphic. As recently as 1981, the Hartford Whalers and the Los Angeles Kings played in the same division. Enough said.
Sidebar: What the hell were commissioners doing in the '70s and early '80s?! The Cincinnati Reds were busy dominating the National League West. The NFL's Atlanta Falcons called the NFC West home; Tampa Bay Buccaneers grouped in with four Upper Midwest teams (Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit, Minnesota). In the NBA, my Cavaliers had three divisional foes over 1,000 miles away from Cleveland — New Orleans, San Antonio, and Houston. And, as noted, the geographically-challenged NHL was up to things like placing the California Golden Seals in the Norris Division with Boston, Buffalo, and Toronto.
Let this be a lesson to modern executives/caretakers of professional sports leagues. Popularity rose for all these sports as some semblance of order was restored. And, to me (former Chief Operating Officer for a summer collegiate baseball league), the correlation begins and ends with organization in the table/standings. Better logistics lead to more efficient traveling. More efficient scheduling leads to lower operating costs and better competitive balance. Ultimately, that translates to a healthier league. Lay out a game board that's orderly and make the rules easy to understand and the casual fans will stick around much longer.
The NHL was a chaotic mess, loosely structured under placeless (and noncongruent) headings — Clarence Campbell Conference and Prince of Wales Conference — for nearly two decades. The divisions didn't add much clarity on the "Where?" of it all: geography-bucking Adams, Norris, Patrick, and Smythe Divisions.
In that, Chicago was an American League outpost in the West for a long time. Fun fact: They were the only AL team playing home games outside the Eastern Time Zone back in 1954. But, of course, that's ancient history; before the U.S. had population booms in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, Dallas/Arlington, Oakland, Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Portland, and Salt Lake City to support MLB clubs. Houston shifting from NL to AL (2013) was another wrinkle that affected the League's center of mass. Very few sportswriters from the 1940s would have believed Chicago could someday be on the right side of the nation's geographic East/West dividing line. Alas, here we are. The irony lies in the 1968 grievance appeal made by White Sox owner Arthur Allyn:
If I had my way, Allyn's wish would come true, some 44 years after his death (59 years after selling the team in disgust over this singular decision).
How about those other current Central Division teams?
American League Expansion in 1969 was quite the spectacle, complete with Congressional threats to MLB's antitrust protections and kickback promises that bumped up previously-agreed-upon timelines. Seattle selecting the Pilots as their nickname seemed to be fateful in retrospect, rife with "failure to launch" and "ran out of runway" puns. And not much of it was their own fault. Ownership was rushed to take a product to market that didn't have all its kinked worked out, so one season is all baseball lasted in the Pacific Northwest (until a second attempt in 1977). The remnants of Seattle's carnage relocated to Milwaukee (vacated by the Braves four years prior) and called themselves the Brewers. The club continued to play in the American League West for two seasons, until they flipped to the AL East in 1972.
They are already the quirky record holders as representatives of four MLB divisions (AL West, AL East, AL Central, NL Central). Adding the National League West in 2029 would leave them one away from playing in all six to have ever existed! Oddly enough, a future switch to the NL East isn't completely absurd to propound. It's tough to definitively say 32 will be the end of MLB expansion in my lifetime. Should an Austin and Salt Lake City someday find their ways into the fray, then Milwaukee would suddenly fall east of the corresponding cut line. If the sport has taught us nothing since 1961, it is that all boundary lines are drawn in sand and not stone.
Four more AL West Championships for the Minnesota Twins would give them an impressive eight in both the West and Central. One more in the East would give the Detroit Tigers four and four. My Guardians would close the book on the AL Central Division as the most decorated team in its history (11 and hopefully counting). They'd also be granted another crack at notching their very first in the East.
Atlanta skipped right over the Central in 1994 and have dominated the NL East ever since — 16 titles in 27 years. They get to stay put.
I understand how this can feel like a slippery slope for some Cleveland folks older than me. Those East years were lean, to the point of mockery; quite literally the butt of the joke in Major League. With the creation of the AL Central, the tides did turn rapidly. The Tribe rolled out a new building (Jacobs Field), new uniforms, and a new roster of homegrown talent. Spanning eight glorious seasons (1994-2001), the perfect storm led to 718 victories (.585 win%), 455 consecutive sellouts, six AL Central titles, and two World Series berths. Even though a World Championship painfully eluded them, I don't know if any future era watching my beloved team will ever match that high.
To a superstitious bunch, "going back" runs the risk of going backwards. Then again, they're not the Indians anymore. Everything related to the club feels different and new as it is. Now would be the time; if we're down to the studs on an image overhaul, we might as well make a sweeping change to our divisional affiliations, too. Indians = Central, chapter closed. And boy was it a fun read. When I get nostalgic, I'll dust it off to remind myself how good the good times were. Guardians = East, yet to be written. Personally, I take on all shots at redemption and/or exorcising demons, so bring it on.
On the opposite side of the spectrum one can find the Pittsburgh Pirates. The franchise amassed nine NL East titles in their illustrious-to-lackluster history. As of publishing date, they are still zero-time winners of the NL Central... completely falling apart after their 20-8 start of the season. Moving to the East in 2029 would be a fitting way to eliminate their roughest era from the memory bank altogether. A clean slate and picking up the greatness where they left off — back-to-back NL East champions in 1991 and 1992, right before the massive overhaul. With the Mets coming to town this weekend, it would exciting to see this series become a high-stakes divisional showdown once again. That, and the Pirates/Phillies need to mean more than it currently does.
Similar story for the Kansas City Royals. They have only one AL Central Division title in 27 years. If feels safe saying they won't add another Central banner before the decade is out. Getting reabsorbed into the AL West would be a welcome opportunity; a chance to add to the six division titles won in the heyday of the club (1976-1985).
Oakland has been raked over the coals for months about their pace to be the worst team in MLB history. To their defense, they've also been mired in ownership and relocation dram every single day of the season. You could argue management has been purposely tanking the on-field product — a real-life plot of Major League — to lessen the blowback of skipping town. Yet, here we are: A Royals team that's now 18-50, percentage points behind the A's. Where is that incessant coverage? What is their excuse? Their rebuild and young core is going backwards. And now that downtown ballpark plan has stalled. Yikes.
The Postseason Bracket Has Been Flawed A Majority Of Modern Times
From 1997-2012, there were eleven division winners that jumped over at least one team from their respective League, with better record, that didn't make the playoffs.
1997 - Houston Astros (over the New York Mets)
2000 - New York Yankees (over the Cleveland Indians)
2001 - Atlanta Braves (over the San Francisco Giants)
2003 - Minnesota Twins (over the Seattle Mariners)
2005 - San Diego Padres (over the Philadelphia Phillies, Florida Marlins, AND New York Mets)
2006 - St. Louis Cardinals (over the Philadelphia Phillies)
2007 - Chicago Cubs (over the San Diego Padres and New York Mets)
2008 was so broken I have to stop this list and detail the travesty in more detail.
Talk about a poster child for Postseason reform. The Los Angeles Dodgers won the West, but had a worse record than 14 other teams in baseball. Since there was still only one NL Wild Card slot to be had, which went to the 90-72 Milwaukee Brewers, there was no more room at the inn for the New York Mets, Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, and Florida Marlins. Four snubs in one League. Yeesh. And to top it off, the AL had an occurrence, too. The Chicago White Sox were a lesser team than three members of the East, but took the final playoff spot over the New York Yankees by virtue of a Central title.
Alexa, resume my list...
2009 - Minnesota Twins (over the Texas Rangers)
2012 - Detroit Tigers (over the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Angels)
Seven out of those eleven times, it was a Central Division winner. It's always the Central. And that's certainly the case here again in 2023. We're trending toward a full-blown 2008 debacle.
So what can Major League Baseball do between now and whenever expansion inevitably takes place (2029 in my estimate)? Conceitedly I say, nothing but my proposal fixes it outright. But, until we get there, the Band-Aid is to amend the playoff seeding process. It's the low-hanging fruit to evolve the incentives; same as the NBA recently did.
Using my current standings from above, this would be the National League side of the bracket. All the participants are correct, but the order isn't. Pittsburgh would slip down out of a #3 seed and a Wild Card Series at PNC Park. I don't think anyone would have an issue with this. I sure didn't last year with my Guardians in the exact same boat.
Ultimately, Cleveland turned it on down the stretch and would have captured the 3 seed in any format. Their 92-70 record matched Toronto's, but the Guardians won that season series 2-1. Note: What a Game 163 that would have been.
The bracket does not seem like it will "correct itself" in quite the same fashion this year. Part of that reason is because of the regular-season scheduling tweak — all 29 possible opponents getting played each and every year. This means Cleveland (and Minnesota) can't get as fat and happy off their own division anymore. September isn't overloaded with cupcakes Kansas City, Detroit, and Chicago any longer. That, and the top two (or three) teams in the other divisions are leaving the Central leader in their dust.
Much like the NCAA Tournament, match-ups and seed lines are everything. The Selection Committee can end a Cinderella story before it ever begins, for "styles make the fight." It's not hard to see how a 2022 would have been different for an Atlanta and New York if the Postseason was seeded properly.
Then again, we are hardly living in the worst era for playoff pairings in the sport's history. From 1969-1997, home-field advantage was predetermined and there were no seeds at all. Without Interleague Play of any kind, there was no way to know for certain if one League's best record was a mirage. But the alternating home/road split also (oddly) trickled down to the internal playoff format.
How does anyone involved with Major League Baseball explain the 104-win Oakland A's opening up the 1988 playoffs in Fenway Park against the 89-win Red Sox? Didn't matter much (4-0 sweep), but the principle of a club with 15 fewer wins "earning" Game 7 at home was a joke.
The World Series venue arrangement somehow devolved into further mockery in the not-so-distant past. From 2003 through 2016, home-field advantage in the World Series was awarded to the team hailing from the league who won that summer’s All-Star Game. Prior to that, it simply flipped back and forth from League to League depending on the year: Odds (AL), evens (NL). The solution — better regular-season winning percentage — was sitting there the whole time; finally instituted as Interleague Play scattered throughout the entire calendar became a thing.
Much was made of Don Denkinger's blown call at first base during Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. From where I sit, the bigger umbrage can be found in the four home games granted to the 91-71 Kansas City Royals, including pivotal Games 6 and 7. The 101-61 St. Louis Cardinals only had three. All because of some mandatory back-and-forth rhythm.
I hate being a wet blanket, but one of the most memorable games of my youth — 1995's 11-inning Game 5 thriller at the Kingdome — should never been played in Seattle... nor involved the Yankees at all. In traditional terminology, the Mariners were the AL's 4 seed. New York was the #3.
It was a day-and-age where Division Series gave the better club three consecutive home games, but only after starting Games 1 and 2 on the road. That same season, the National League's #1 (Atlanta) and #2 (Cincinnati), both began their best-of-five series on the road, all because of a random rotation. Quite literally, the proper people were on the bus, but not a single one was sitting in the right seat.
This is partly because the original rule surrounding inclusion of a second-place finisher was that they could not meet their division's winner in the first round. This was asinine and extended all the way through the creation of the Wild Card Game in 2013. It potentially cost some great Indians teams more October victories. In 1996, the Tribe was the reigning AL Pennant Winners and top winning percentage in baseball. They properly matched up against the Wild Card Orioles. However, they began the ALDS in Baltimore and fell into an 0-2 hole they never could dig themselves out of. What good is that home-field advantage of Games 4 and 5 if you're backed up against it long before that?
Same story in the NL with 4-seed St. Louis jumping out to a 2-0 lead before San Diego (with a better regular-season record) even had a chance to play at home.
In 1997, the 92-win Marlins were the betting favorites to win an NLDS against San Francisco. Rightly so; they swept a much weaker Giants squad en route to an improbable (and first-ever) Wild Card World Series Championship. However, my heart wouldn't have been ripped out of my chest — over the outcome of that year's Fall Classic — if Florida played #1 seed Atlanta (101-61) in the first round. The inconsistency of treating the Wild Card as each league's worst seed, but not when geography got in the way, was maddening.
For instance: The Red Sox and Yankees should have met in the 1995, 1998, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2009, and 2010 American League Division Series. Obviously, they did not. Sure, this would have taken away the drama of Aaron *Bleeping* Boone and the 3-0 Comeback the following year, but so be it. The rules would have been evenly applied to, and understood well in advance by, all parties. #1 plays the best second place finisher, period. There should have never been any wait and see.
Now, the language needs to be different, but that sentiment of absolutes is what a 32-team Major League Baseball needs. Cherry picking Final Four match-ups to include darling Yankees/Red Sox is great for the ratings but terrible for the other clubs competing just as hard. There cannot be anymore "Yeah, but" when it comes to arranging the bracket. This summer's Central Divisions are going to make that abundantly clear. And when the storyline of the 2023 Postseason is written, and it's not the way it should have been constructed, don't come crying to me.
It doesn't take much to see how vital it is for current commissioner Rob Manfred to finally get this rectified. It's a sport that is a marathon until the very last mile, where it stylistically shifts to a sprint. Everything managers preach during the Dog Days of Summer is thrown out the window in October. Have your favorite team catch fire at the right time and you could watch them the Commissioner's Trophy and attend the parade. We'll never know who would have won some of those mid-'90s titles if the system provided proper order. Here's to hoping my children never have to speculate in this same way. All the logistics, right down the Minor League ladder, are already sorted: