Ahhh, spring training. A time for doubt, self-pity, hopelessness, and the bitter, burning anger that comes from realizing your heydays are now so far behind you, they’re barely specks in your rear view mirror.
At least, that’s what I imagine spring training means to fans of the Royals and the Pirates, and, if you take away the heydays part, to loyalists of the Rockies and Devil Rays.
(A Cubs fan feeling sorry for other teams’ fans—pretty funny, huh?)
Ever since I first became acquainted with it, I’ve been fascinated by the tiered structure of professional soccer in places like England and Italy, where clubs compete for championships only within their tiers, the top finishing teams at the end of each season are promoted to the next level for the subsequent season, and the bottom finishers are demoted or “relegated” to the next lower rung on the ladder.
Such a system would be completely unacceptable in Major League Baseball for a thousand reasons. One of the most obvious is the travel burden it would impose on a team from the West Coast, say, if it was in a division with nine teams from the east. But logic aside…
If MLB had implemented a three-tier setup based on 2006 records, the ’07 alignment would shape up like this:
“Premier” First Division (with last year’s winning pct.)
White Sox .556
Blue Jays .537
Red Sox .531
Devil Rays .377
Nice and neat, wouldn’t you say? Each team would play its division mates 18 times apiece, 162 games in all. (As long as I’m playing Commissioner here, we’re going to schedule lots of day games and Sunday doubleheaders, and anyone who even mouths the words, “Designated Hitter” will be banned for life.)
Going back to where this whole piece started, would the possibility of taking a top spot in the Third Division and earning promotion at the end of the year give Pirates and Royals and Rockies and Devil Rays fans more reason to be excited about the coming season than they currently enjoy? I don’t know. On the one hand, it hardly seems American to be satisfied by having risen to the position of 21st or 22nd best out of 30. (“We’re Number Twenty-One! We’re Number Twenty-One!”) On the other hand, what do these most sorrowful of teams really have to look forward to in the baseball world as we know it?
What about what truly matters, the fortunes of our dear Cubs? I don’t imagine that the citizens of Cub Nation would be nearly as anxious to wait in line for numbered wristbands or spend hours trying to log into virtual waiting rooms if the richest possible prize at the end of 2007 was a Third Division title over the Giants and Nationals. See, I’m assuming that the World Series would be the concern of the First Division teams only, perhaps a simple best-of-seven between the top two finishers. That would mean the Cubs couldn’t possibly end their 98-year dry spell this year or even next, since it would take a minimum of two years for the team to climb up to the First Division.
So, no, a shot at Third Division glory couldn’t possibly energize the Wrigley Field faithful the way that hiring Piniella and signing Soriano and conceivably competing for serious hardware in 2007 already has.
However, if the Cubbies fall flat on their faces this year and next and perhaps a few after that and find themselves well into another century without a championship, a Third Division trophy could start looking awfully sweet.