Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 22: Astros switch leagues

Getty Images
3 Comments

We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 22 — The Astros switch leagues 

From their advent as the Colt .45s in 1962 through the 2012 season, the Houston Astros played in the National League. First they were in the unitary National League then, with the start of divisional play in 1969, they joined the NL West. Finally, realignment came in 1994, putting them in the NL Central.

At first that realignment featured some sanity: five teams in each league’s East and Central and four teams in each team’s West. Leagues had to be even, of course, because interleague play had not yet begun.

Then, in 1998, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks began play. That required some shifting to keep from having an odd number of teams in each league. The Tigers left the AL East so the Rays could join that division, moving to the AL Central. In order to keep an even number of teams in each league, the Brewers — owned by Commissioner Bud Selig’s family, and thus amenable to the league’s wishes — moved to the NL Central. With that, and the Dbacks in the NL West, the National League had 16 teams and the American League stayed with 14.

This created a new problem: a National League Central division with six teams and an American League West with only four teams. Issues of unfairness emerged and, after several years during which fans became used to interleague play, which began in 1997, Major League Baseball thought it best that they move to two 15-team leagues, requiring someone to leave the NL and join the AL.

The Astros were chosen for a couple of reasons. One reason was that, if they were to join the AL West, a natural rivalry would be created with their fellow Texas team, the Rangers. Another reason was practical: the Astros were up for sale and, since (a) Major League Baseball needed an owner to agree to move his team; and (b) any prospective new owner basically had to bend over backwards to please Major League Baseball in order to be allowed into the club, the conditions were ripe for a deal. Bud Selig asked prospective Astros owner Jim Crane to move his team to the AL West.

Crane wasn’t enamored with the idea at first, in large part because moving to the West meant more team travel than the Astros would’ve had if they had remained in the NL Central. There was also a suggestion that the team’s TV money might suffer due to playing AL teams which the Houston TV market was not used to watching or was not interested in watching. Crane also, correctly, realized that Major League Baseball might pay him for his trouble if he held out some. A report in late 2011 had him asking for a $50 million discount on his purchase price of the Astros but, in the end the New York Times reported, he got $70 million. That’ll pay for some jet fuel.

The Astros first season in the American League came in 2013. It was their worst season in franchise history — they lost 111 games — but that had less to do with realignment than it did with the fact that the team was in the midst of one of the all-time tank jobs/rebuilding efforts in the game’s history. Indeed, they had lost over 100 games in their final two years in the National League as well. After one more year of losing, the Astros made the playoffs in 2015. Two years later they’d win the World Series. You basically know their story by now. It’s all worked out for them pretty dang well, all things considered.

It’s also quite possible that one day the Astros’ move to the American League will seem quaint as far as realignment goes.

Every couple of years someone floats a plan for radical realignment. The elimination of the leagues, which now exist mostly in name only, is occasionally brought up. Radical realignment plans which more closely align teams by geography get tossed around from time to time and often feel like trial balloons sent up by the league. Certainly if we see another round of expansion one day — or if either of baseball’s two stadium-challenged clubs, the Rays or A’s, move cities — a lot of shuffling will have to occur.

At present, however, the Astros move is the most recent data point in realignment. And one that still seems significant. At least to old timers like me who still sometimes have to remind themselves of the league in which they play.

PREVIOUS ENTRIES:

No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

aaron judge
Cole Burston/Getty Images
2 Comments

TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.