Thursday, September 4, 1997
Reds line: Keep us in NL

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The National League is non-negotiable. John Allen is determined to cling to the roots of the Cincinnati Reds and to keep his distance from the designated hitter.

He is otherwise amenable to realignment. Marge Schott's baseball proxy is open to change, but not to chaos. He might be swayed, but not stampeded.

"Of any subject since I've been here, this is definitely the one that's generated the most mail," Allen said Wednesday. "They're all very emotional about it. The one thing that I keep seeing is, 'I'm just coming back from the strike, and now if you go ahead and do this, you've hurt my feelings about the game.' "

Allen is sensitive to public opinion, and his personal straw poll shows Reds fans with a strong preference for the status quo. While some changes to baseball's structure are inevitable with expansion, the prospect of radical realignment grows increasingly remote.

Getting 28 owners to agree on anything was a job for Job. Now that there are 30 of them, baseball's standard operating procedure will be gridlock. The owners will meet Sept. 16-18 in Atlanta to determine new lines of demarcation, but many teams have already expressed strong objections and none can be moved involuntarily.

Expectations are that any moves will be modest.

Selig plan too radical

Acting Commissioner Bud Selig had sought to redraw the baseball map virtually from scratch, blurring the distinction between the American and National Leagues by moving as many as 15 teams from one league to the other.

This was a lot to swallow in a single gulp. Too much, it turns out.

Wednesday's word from the realignment committee was that realignment has become a secondary goal to more felicitous scheduling, and that radical realignment may now mean six teams or fewer switching leagues.

Selig's idea was to devise divisions based on geography rather than history. His plans promised to reduce travel costs, to increase the number of games each team would play in its own time zone and to capitalize on obvious rivalries that had been totally untapped until interleague play.

"The worst mistake we can make is a Band-Aid approach, do a little now. Because we're fooling you and we're fooling ourselves, and in a year or two we'd be back again and that would be unconscionable."

From an accounting standpoint, Selig's suggestions made perfect sense. But among those who care most about baseball, it is almost as if Selig has proposed paving paradise to put up a parking lot.

Baseball is the most stubborn of our major sports, and this is a point of pride. Each time it celebrates its traditions and its history, it becomes a little more bound by precedent.

If you think radical realignment has had a hard time gaining consensus, consider the spirited opposition to lights at Wrigley Field and the Reds' enduring resistance to facial hair. The most powerful force in baseball is often inertia.

"The less change, the less realignment, the more feeling that it's not bad," said Allen. "I think there's a direct relationship there."

No easy solutions

Some change is unavoidable. In assigning the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays to different leagues, the owners have painted themselves into a scheduling corner. With two 15-team leagues, the only way for every team to be in action on a given day is interleague play. A full season of interleague play would surely dilute its appeal.

Most of the proposals currently in play call for one 16-team league and one 14-team league. Allen prefers a 16-team National League with four four-team divisions. His concern is being placed in the same company with free-spending franchises like Atlanta, Florida and the New York Mets.

"The best scenario is that we stay in a division with teams who have comparable operating philosophies from a payroll and a baseball operations standpoint," he said. "By the same token, you can't lose sight of the fact that baseball is a cyclical game."

Baseball's balance of power shifts a little bit each season. The game itself moves more slowly. Some people still think this is a good thing. Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.