added 7/18/2011 by Bob Hulsey
Rumors and reports have swirled this summer about the Houston Astros moving to the American League to create two 15-team leagues. So far, the Astros have denied this is happening but Houston fans have been lied to before.
The usual talking points in favor of switching are that the Astros "need" to have a rivalry with the Texas Rangers and that it's somehow unfair for the NL Central to have six teams and the AL West to have only four.
Never mind that Commissioner Bud Selig created the problem by moving the Milwaukee Brewers, the team he formerly owned, from the AL to the NL in 1997 when the majors added the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. At the time, Selig claimed that Milwaukee was "really a National League town" after they had the Braves for 13 seasons from 1953 to 1965 before losing them to Atlanta. The Brewers were an American League team for 28 years.
The real problem is that there are eight teams within the Mountain and Pacific time zones and you can't evenly divide eight into five. Ever since the majors went to 30 teams and three divisions in each league, the western divisions have been a logistic and geographical nightmare, particularly for the Rangers who apparently drew the short straw and were lumped in with three Pacific time zone teams.
Somehow, putting the Astros in the American League might make sense for the Rangers but it benefits nothing for the Astros. I have my theory how this all got started and why the suspicious push to do this now after over a decade where evening out the leagues was rarely a topic, much less a priority.
Below are 10 reasons why a switch is a bad idea for the Astros:
1. Rivalry Shmivalry
Over the past three seasons, the Astros-Rangers series has averaged 33,010 in attendance at Minute Maid and 33,765 in Arlington. Good numbers, but not outstanding. Yet spend much time in either city and you don't feel a sense that the fans are eager to see more of each other. There's certainly no Longhorn-Aggie intensity, not even Cowboys-Texans.
Some say that would change if you put them together in the same division but is it worth giving up the rivalries established with the Cubs and Cardinals - the latter of which provided thrilling postseasons in 2004 and 2005? Astros fans also have some hate going against the Braves after repeated playoff clashes. All that would be all but gone if the Astros switched leagues. Also gone would be any hope of an All-Texas World Series.
Since interleague play will, by necessity, expand instead of shrink (explained further under reason 5), and most teams are assigned six games against a "natural rival" (Yankees-Mets, Angels-Dodgers, Reds-Indians, etc.) who becomes the NL rival for either Texas team? Flip a coin between the Rockies and D-Backs, I guess.
2. Less League Balance
Another argument in favor of a league switch is six guaranteed home dates against baseball's two empires - Boston and New York. All of that hides the reality that the other 12 teams in the American League are so dwarfed by the payrolls and media attention of the Red Sox and Yankees as to be a dozen versions of the Washington Generals, stooge foils for the Harlem Globetrotters. The rest of the AL are merely stage props for the all-important Sox and Yanks to abuse over the long summer.
The National League, by contrast, offers far more opportunities for a mid-market team to dominate. The two richest clubs, the Mets and Dodgers, have financial woes. The other rich team, the Cubs, are perpetually incompetent and wedded to a ballpark that is falling apart.
This gives mid-market teams like the Phillies, Giants and Cardinals a chance to flourish. The Astros are capable of doing this too if they can only find a commitment to spend and a front office that spends wisely. In the American League? As they say in the Bronx, "fuhgettaboutit!"
3. Poor League Attendance
So far, you're ready to jump. Ooh, potentially nine home dates against the Rangers! Three each with the Red Sox and Yankees! What's not to love? Well, how about the other 66 home dates?
While the Florida Marlins have the worst home attendance in the majors this year, the next seven teams at the bottom of the attendance standings are American League teams, including new AL West neighbors Oakland and Seattle. We're talking half the American League in the bottom ten out of 30 teams
Sure, there will be a curiosity bump for a year or two but, overall, expect attendance to decline rather than increase with a league switch despite the Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees showing up on the schedule. Your typical AL experience is still going to be a date with the Mariners, Royals or Orioles in front of a half-empty crowd. Yawn.
4. Crummy Venues
Would you like to pass up the National League sites for scenic Detroit? Or exotic Cleveland? Or breathtaking Oakland? Would you rather spend an afternoon at historic and picturesque Wrigley Field or Chicago's south side? It's getting easier to understand why the AL "have nots" are having attendance struggles.
True, you can find a lot of blight in Philly and DC, but there's also a lot of historic and important places to spend a weekend. No question, the National League has the more exciting tour of cities than the AL does.
Oh, and have I mentioned that the ballpark in Arlington lies under the Texas summer sun with no roof, not even a retractable one? Can't wait for those division showdowns in July and August when it's 104 degrees in the shade, can you?
5. Interleague Play All Season
The thought is being hush-hushed right now but I guarantee you there will be complaints when, say, the AL East comes down to the final days of the regular season with the Yankees playing the Rays while the Red Sox are playing the Padres at Petco.
15-team leagues mean somebody's playing an interleague game all season long with all the disparities involved in such contests. How sad for baseball if the division title comes down to a critical series for all the marbles against a team they haven't seen all year because they play in the other circuit with different rules. This has Bud Selig Epic Fail written all over it.
6. Different Styles Of Play
Although the images have blurred lately, the typical AL game is a high-scoring four-hour marathon with beefy sluggers bashing three-run homers while the NL game emphasizes pitching and defense. Clearly, the Astros are constructed for the latter which means they'd have to hunt for players who can hit homers should they switch. Get used to seeing more defenders like Jeff Kent and fewer like Michael Bourn.
"But what about Carlos Lee? He could be the DH!"
Since the league switch won't happen until 2013 at the earliest, Lee's contract would be finished. Trust me, if anyone at Union Station signed Lee to a contract extension, Minute Maid would go up in flames.
Then there's the DH itself and the total vacuum of in-game strategy the rule produces. No need for double switches or having to decide whether to lift a pitcher for a pinch-hitter. Just put nine names on a card, sit back and watch them hack for four hours. Boring.
7. National League Traditions
The Astros have a 50-year legacy with the National League. Before that, they were the long-time farm affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals so the NL roots go back even further.
Houston is tied for ninth in league seniority with as many years as the Marlins, Rockies and Diamondbacks combined. They also have been an NL city longer than Milwaukee, Washington and San Diego. Of those six, only Florida and San Diego have been to more World Series (2) than the Astros (1).
Other than the original eight, the Astros have the best argument for staying in the National League if things like records and history have any meaning to you, which it seems to matter to most baseball fans.
The American League seems to be the home of cheap gimmicks like the DH, 13-man pitching staffs and steroid abuse. You get the feeling the AL would approve aluminum bats too if those stodgy National Leaguers wouldn't frown on it.
8. Nine O'Clock Starts
As new citizens of the AL West, get ready for up to 33 games in the Pacific time zone, meaning night games won't start until 9 p.m. and may not finish until past midnight. Sure, the NL West also has three Pacific teams but, as residents of the Central Division, the Astros don't see them as often. All those late starts will certainly drive down ad revenues on the new Astros cable channel too.
9. Bud Norris
One of the best long-term prospects on the ballclub, pitcher Bud Norris, is 6-2 in his career against St. Louis with a 2.45 ERA. He's 14-17 against the rest of the majors. How often will Norris face the Cardinals if the Astros switch leagues? If you're curious about his stats against the AL, Norris is 0-1 in three starts with a 6.19 ERA.
10. The Curse
How many big league teams have won a division title after they've switched leagues? How do we know the Baseball Gods don't have another 100-year curse in the works for that abomination?
No, the obvious answer if a 15-team league is essential, is to move the Brewers back to the American League and put either them or Kansas City in the AL West with the Rangers. If Selig was a fair man, this is what he would do.
But, in the Animal Farm-like collective that is Major League Baseball, where everyone is supposedly equal, some teams are more equal than others and that includes Bud's Brewers. Didn't those 28-year rivalries with the neighboring Twins and White Sox count for anything? Surely that history is richer than the small amount the Astros and Rangers have shared.
Interesting to note that nobody is volunteering to leave the National League to go payroll-to-payroll against the Red Sox and Yankees, so somebody has to be forced to move. That tells you all you need to know why switching to the American League is a bad idea. By comparison, keeping up with the Phillies seems far less daunting.