What's the most explosive issue Major League Baseball owners will confront when they meet in Atlanta on Sept. 12-16? Icy relations with the players? The sport's shoddy record of hiring minorities for the front office? How about the appointment of baseball's first commissioner since the waning days of the Bush Administration?
Nah. This is riskier than standing near Ken Griffey Jr.'s bat. This is wilder than spending $12 million on a Japanese pitcher with more attitude than arm. This is realignment.
The bright lines that have set apart the American and National Leagues for the past 97 baseball seasons won't be as bright next year. Among the owners, a consensus has emerged for some degree of reshuffling, though a realignment plan has yet to be selected from the dozen or so floated.
NEW SCHEME. Proposals range from the simply radical to the really radical. One of the first considered would have virtually obliterated the current system, uprooting 15 of the current 28 franchises from their present leagues. That plan failed, and a scaled-back version that could be adopted calls for shifting nine teams: Anaheim, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Seattle to the National League; Florida, Houston, Montreal, and Philadelphia to the American.
Also up for grabs: the structure of divisions within the leagues. One proposal being considered would scrap the current three-division setup within the NL and AL for two larger divisions of seven or eight teams. That's now considered less likely than a competing plan to group teams in smaller divisions of four or five.
For the owners, realignment is merely the latest effort to repackage their product and raise revenues through increased ticket sales and keener competition for broadcast rights among TV networks and cable operators. Three years ago, the owners approved a similar step, expanding post-season play to include second-place finishers or "wild cards." And before this season, they jolted some baseball purists by introducing a limited slate of interleague games.
The owners have pronounced both changes smashing successes, particularly this season's dabble with interleague play. Not surprisingly, games matching crosstown rivals--the Yankees and Mets in New York and the Cubs and White Sox in Chicago--have been winners at the box office. So have games pitting superstars from the opposing leagues. When the Seattle Mariners and Griffey, the American League's top slugger, traveled to San Francisco to meet the Giants and NL home-run threat Barry Bonds, 40,000 fans turned out, more than double the Giants' average gate.
But not every interleague game has been a crowd-pleaser. When two second-division sloggers, the Cincinnati Reds and the Minnesota Twins, hooked up at the Metrodome in Minneapolis on a Saturday night last month, only 17,000 showed. And for several thousand, the family-night ticket promotion was as powerful a draw as the largely meaningless game.
Mixed results such as those invite the question: Why realign? Owners sell the concept as a way to cut down on wearying travel schedules and to enhance regional rivalries: In the newly constituted leagues, geography will be king.
But what do fans want? Based on rising ticket sales in the face of ever-rising prices, the last thing they're clamoring for is radical change. Or change of any kind. This season, attendance at major league games is the second-highest in history, trailing only 1993, the last full season before the strike-shortened season of '94. When the Giants canvassed their season-ticket holders, 95% said they were opposed to radical realignment. A recent survey on the ESPN SportsZone Web site drew more than 9,000 responses, with most saying the owners are moving too fast on realignment.
"The proposal to tear apart a 97-year-old structure of proven appeal is so unreasonable as to make one wonder if its proponents have a hidden agenda," writes Leonard Koppett, a Baseball Hall of Fame inductee whose column appears in several Northern California newspapers. The issue behind the issue, Koppett theorizes, is revenue sharing, a concept the richest franchises have resisted mightily for years. If realignment bolsters the bottom line, there'll be more money for all, easing pressure on clubs at the top to share the wealth.
That's not what fans care about, though. They care about answers to questions like: "Who's our cleanup hitter?" and "Do we have a lefthanded closer in the bullpen?" To that list of time-honored baseball queries, you can add one more next season: "What league are we in?"