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It’s time to regionalize baseball

As the differences between the leagues evaporate, a new way of thinking.

MLB: Game Two-Boston Red Sox at Philadelphia Phillies
We should play the Phillies more!
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In college a friend of mine was constantly rearranging MLB’s divisions during class. Our professors would be droning on about Thucydides and he’d be hunched over, swapping the Royals and Reds back and forth or whatever. Each iteration maintained the integrity of the American League/National League system, with two East, Central and West divisions, because that’s just how things were and are done.

Well, to quote Scarlett Overkill... times change! Perhaps it makes me a supervillain to suggest it, but as the National League and American League finalize their move toward unified rules with the inevitable full-time adoption of the designated hitter, the reasons for upholding the NL/AL system as we know it start to dissolve entirely. This year, while terrible, in many ways, has shown us a better way forward. It’s time to regionalize baseball.

This is, perhaps, less radical than I’ve made it sound. It’s what the NBA and NHL do, for starters, and it’s what Major League Baseball has done in a year where traveling is difficult and the movement of players is restricted. The results have been bad for the Red Sox this year, but the process? The process has been great.

Aside from the 7:30 PM starts, a full schedule of early games has changed what I understand to be right and wrong about the MLB schedule. “Interleague” play means virtually nothing now; it’s just play against teams nearby the Sox, for a million reasons, should be playing anyway. What makes more sense to you: A 7 PM game against the Mets or Phillies or a 10 PM game against the Angels or Mariners? For people living in the East Coast, there’s no question. It’s the former, each and every day.

The reasons for splitting up the leagues in the old way is clear in retrospect, so I’m not impugning however many years of history. Before there was an easy way to watch the Red Sox on, like, your watch, from anywhere in the world, the only way to showcase the entire league(s) was to regularly send teams across the country to expose them to new audiences. Even then, the system wasn’t perfect. In an AL city like Seattle, for instance, before interleague play they’d get visitors like the Sox and Yankees but not the Mets, Phillies or Expos. Merde.

Interleague play solved some of this problem, but created a crunch of games that was ultimately solved by the unbalanced schedule, which emphasized games against division rivals at the expense of the distinction of most of the rest of the league. Teams would play a huge number of in-division games and sparing numbers outside of it, no matter the provenance of the opponent.

It is time for a new change. Just as interleague play has been entirely demystified by the passing of time, the value of the familiarity of playing an American League team on the west coast has dissolved completely versus the convenience of playing a National League team down the road. Beyond that, our Sox fan friends in far-flung places can enjoy the team all the same no matter where they are, without breaking a sweat.

My solution, then, is simple: an Eastern League and a Western League, or maybe those two and a Central League — something like that. I kinda like the three leagues possibility, actually, but that could be a bridge too far for some people. The main draw of all of this is painfully simple: games at watchable times, as often as possible, for both home and away market teams. Whatever rivalries it destroys it will create anew in no time flat; why aren’t the Giants and A’s playing all the time? Or the Dodgers and Angels? The more you think about it, the less sense it makes.

The good news now — and boy, do we need some! — is that the answer is finally staring us right in the face. Necessity is the mother of invention, and MLB has invented a new and better way forward. They probably won’t see it through, but they could save us all a lot of headaches, and sleep, if they do.