Look no further than this weekend’s Red Sox-Yankees series for proof. Instead of the late September showdown in the Bronx being a possible ALCS preview, the three-game set felt more like early March exhibition games in Ft. Myers. Sunday’s finale had as much passion as a leaky roof and less electricity than a log cabin.
The Yankees clinched the AL East, and the Red Sox didn’t put up much of a fight to stop them. Some will argue it was the conclusion of a 10-game road trip on top of the 162-game grind catching up with Boston, but the more likely explanation why the Red Sox didn’t display any great sense of urgency or have a whole lot of fire in their belly is because they didn’t need to beat the Yankees to make the playoffs.
With the AL wild card all but locked up for Boston, there was no reason to battle for the division title, no reason to risk life and limb. The Red Sox were playing it smart, simply taking what Major League Baseball has given them.
But when a regular-season Red Sox-Yankees game lacks passion, something is wrong with the system.
The wild card has become a reward for second place. The way to change that is through expansion and realignment. Here’s a simple plan:
1. Add two new AL teams by Opening Day 2014.
This will give MLB 32 teams.
The powers that be could pick a state where professional sports are popular, but baseball isn’t represented. North Carolina springs to mind. The Tar Heel State features an NFL team (Carolina Panthers), NBA squad (Charlotte Bobcats) and NHL club (Carolina Hurricanes), but only minor league baseball teams play there.
If you build a baseball stadium in N.C., the fans will come. Look at the Durham Bulls. They made one of the best sports movies of all time based on them. Bring the Show to town, and it will be a bigger hit than free steaks.
Other possible candidates for a new major league franchise include Portland, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Vancouver and San Juan (Puerto Rico). Dyersville, Iowa, is a long shot, but there’s no shortage of baseball fans amid the cornfields.
2. Split the 32 teams into eight divisions.
Follow the NFL model. Put 16 teams in the AL, and keep 16 teams in the NL. Break them into four divisions.
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Tampa Bay Rays
Chicago White Sox
Toronto Blue Jays
Expansion Team A
Kansas City Royals
Expansion Team B
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
New York Mets
St. Louis Cardinals
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
Make a few tweaks or revisions if necessary, but this layout takes into account geography while preserving tradition, history and MLB’s best rivalries: Red Sox-Yankees, Cubs-Cardinals and Dodgers-Giants. It also gives perennial bottom-feeders like the Pirates, Nationals and Royals a one-in-four shot of sniffing the postseason.
3. Every team that finishes first in its division makes the playoffs.
Get rid of the wild card, and there’s no need to change the postseason format from best-of-five division series to best-of-seven championship series to best-of-seven World Series. Once a team makes it to October, 11 remains the magic number to start singing “We Are the Champions” and planning a parade.
Without the safety net of a wild-card berth, no team will be able to back into the playoffs. No team will be able to finish behind a division winner and keep playing. No team will be able to concede anything.
Every game will really matter.