Baseball Needs to Think Much Bigger With Its Next Expansion

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates with Trent Thornton #57 and Eric Sogard #5 after hitting a three-run home run against the San Francisco Giants in the sixth inning of their MLB game at Oracle Park on May 14, 2019 in San Francisco, California

Source Robert Reiners/Getty

Why you should care

Because this is how to embrace the beautiful game’s regional nature.

When Vlad Guerrero Jr. stepped up to home plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inside Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, you could almost see the magic before it happened. Sure, it was a spring training game in March, but to the thousands of baseball fans in Montreal — a city left without a team since the Expos relocated to Washington, D.C., and became the Nationals in 2005 — this was truly special. The son of their favorite Hall of Famer was making his Canadian debut with the chance to win the game. And that he did.

The next day, baseball in Montreal was just a memory again.

But as a recent proposal to build a new downtown ballpark gains steam, Montreal’s hopes are rising for a Major League Baseball renaissance. Meanwhile, baseball fans in Portland, Oregon, have been so vocal that a potential ownership group — the Portland Diamond Project — has already raised more than $1.3 billion to bring a club to town. “Baseball is a growth industry,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters in 2017. “Eventually, we’d like to get [from 30] to 32 teams.”

He’s thinking too small. Baseball should go for 40.

It’s time for a major league makeover.

It’s no secret that MLB’s popularity and financial success is largely regional. The modern baseball fan follows his team and cares about division rivalries, but is largely indifferent to league-wide happenings. That’s different from, say, the NBA or NFL, where social media and the popularity of fantasy sports have created a fandom that favors star players and story lines across regional borders. But regionality isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it can create the most intense fandom.

 

So why not embrace this trend and go bigger — way bigger — than all the other major North American sports leagues? The NFL (32 teams), NBA (30), NHL (31, with No. 32 due in 2021) and MLB (30) have all grown at more or less the same pace in recent decades. But given that baseball is stronger when more people have a local nine to root for, it’s time for MLB to leap ahead into new sports-hungry markets while scrapping the American and National League setup in favor of a four-division alignment. It’s time for a major league makeover.

The New Layout

East: Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Tampa, Washington, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Nashville and Durham (North Carolina).

North: Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota, Montreal, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Toronto, Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox.

Central: Colorado, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Texas Rangers, Memphis, Austin, New Orleans and Mexico City.

West: Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona, Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Salt Lake City.

At first glance, the divisional realignment probably upsets MLB purists more than the fact that the Miami Marlins are gone. Yes, after years of failing to support the club, Miami watches new cutthroat owner Derek Jeter move the franchise to Mexico City. Would that actually surprise anyone?

Elsewhere, some sports-crazy cities with intense regional pride have earned a promotion to the big leagues. Memphis, New Orleans, Portland, Vancouver, Salt Lake City, Nashville and Montreal have all proved capable hosts of other major professional clubs. Likewise, Austin, Louisville and Durham have long histories of minor league success — and lack a major professional-league club of their own. Think of how Sacramento and San Antonio love their NBA franchises — the only pro game in town. It’s time for cities like Austin to hit the big time.

Of course, ensuring this all works requires condensing the schedule.

A 153-game schedule would equal 12 games against each club’s nine divisional opponents (reducing travel distances because the divisions are more compact), plus a three-game series against five teams from each of the other three divisions. Those five teams would alternate each season, heightening the excitement for certain special matchups and “throwback rivalries” like Cardinals versus Cubs. Following the shortened regular season, an extended 16-team postseason would ensue — starting with the No. 3 and 4 teams from each division squaring off in a one-game playoff, with winners to face divisional runners-up in a best-of-five series. From there, the postseason looks like it does now. The extended playoffs would more than compensate for the lost revenue of a shorter regular season.

And don’t forget, that’s the most important thing here: revenue. At the turn of the century, all the talk around baseball was about which teams to eliminate. Now the game is swimming in cash, and growing the number of franchises by one-third will only sweeten the pot.  

This proposal will take some getting used to. Even Mark DeRosa, a progressive former player and Turner Sports analyst, says he doesn’t “see much need to make a drastic change.” But for a league constantly tinkering with self-improvement to make games shorter, this is one place where growth is a good thing.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Expos moved from Montreal to Washington state. They moved to Washington, D.C.

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