Spare me: Major League Baseball does not care about the differences between the leagues

54 Comments

In the story about Rob Manfred saying that the DH will stay out of the National League “for the foreseeable future,” the Commissioner said that the DH is “the single most important feature that defines the differences between the two leagues.” In a second interview on the subject yesterday he reiterated “I think it serves an important purpose in terms of defining the difference between the American League and the National League, and that league definition is important to us from a competitive perspective.”

Setting aside the merits of the designated hitter for a moment, let us ask ourselves: since when did Major League Baseball give a rip about the “differences between the American and National League?” Indeed, the past 20-25 years or so has seen nothing but the wholesale elimination of the differences between the AL and the NL. In fact, apart from the DH, there are almost no significant differences between the leagues anymore.

There used to be significant differences between the AL and the NL, of course. Most obvious being their schedules, with American League and National League teams not playing one another until the World Series each year. Many people thought this “served an important purpose in terms of defining the difference between the American League and the National League” and that it was “important from a competitive perspective,” but Major League Baseball chucked the idea because they saw a way to make some money with interleague play.

The AL and the NL likewise used to have separate league offices with separate crews of umpires, separate disciplinary regimes and separate league presidents overseeing things. Given that the differing implementation of rules and context led, inevitably, to different styles of play, having separate administrative structures “served an important purpose in terms of defining the difference between the American League and the National League” and was “important from a competitive perspective,” but Major League Baseball eliminated all of those distinctions in order to gain administrative efficiencies.

By virtue of the lack of interleague play, league allegiances used to matter to fans, but twice in recent history Major League Baseball has simply changed a team from one league to another, putting the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League and the Houston Astros in the American League. The matchups and rivalries two entire cities knew and loved — and the fans in cities whose teams the Astros and Brewers played knew and loved — “served an important purpose in terms of defining the difference between the American League and the National League” and were “important from a competitive perspective,” but Major League Baseball changed that to make expansion, scheduling, and travel easier.

Lest you think I am complaining here, please know that I am fully aware that there were and continue to be pros and cons for every single one of those moves. Efficiency does matter. Making more money is an important goal of owners and players alike. Even though we all have our own opinions on the DH, I would hope that no matter what any one of us thinks, we can acknowledge that there are pros and cons to each side of that argument too.

But let us not for one minute pretend that, at the end of the day, “the difference between the American League and the National League” is an end that Major League Baseball has ever cared about in and of itself. It’s never been cited as an ultimate reason for change or a reason against change outside of DH arguments. And let us not pretend that what is “important from a competitive perspective” is ruling here because, again, no matter what you think of the DH, you must admit that having it in one league and not the other while playing an interleague schedule interspersed with league games all season long creates distinct competitive problem in terms of roster construction and the like.

I do not know why, exactly, Manfred and the “vast majority” of NL owners do not want the DH in their league. Maybe they truly are all a bunch of unabashed sentimentalists who want nothing more than to preserve grand traditions. Maybe this has nothing to do with NL owners not wanting to pay an additional position player and has nothing to do with posturing against the union in the runup to Collective Bargaining Agreement talks. Maybe this a case of the billionaire class of baseball owners simply being whimsical old saps for bygone a day when pitchers batted in every single game.

But I doubt it. Because in every single way that is important apart from the DH, they have sought to standardize Major League Baseball and erase the distinctions between the leagues in all but name over the past two decades. That they implemented, with single votes, rules which eliminated a century of real differences between the leagues but now stand firm at a difference that has existed for 43 years requires more in the way of explanation than a mere wave at tradition in my mind. Maybe these sharp businessmen who have always made decisions which maximize efficiency and standardization should state their real reason for not taking that course here. Because I’m not buying it.