No National League in 2020?

Major League Baseball has yet to formally announce a plan for how it intends to play baseball this season, but it has floated several trial balloons. Most of these, sensibly, involve playing the games without fans in the seats. That is a good thing, and can help bring back baseball when the country needs it.

Here’s the latest trial balloon:

A 100-game season starting around late June

Teams playing in their own home ballparks, rather than a concentrated area such as Arizona or Florida

A three-division plan (with ten teams per division) “in which teams play only within their division

It would abolish the traditional American and National Leagues, and realign the divisions based on geography.

The eastern division, for example, would consist of the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Nationals, Orioles, Phillies, Pirates, Blue Jays, Rays, and Marlins. That’s the current eastern divisions of the two leagues, plus the Pirates from the N.L. Central. So far as I can tell, the main impetus behind the geographic realignment is to reduce the need for air travel, by scheduling teams to play only those opponents closest to home — a throwback to the days when teams traveled exclusively by train, before the 1950s — while also avoiding having to quarantine players away from their families to play in Arizona.

It should nonetheless alarm baseball traditionalists (of which I am one, and proudly so) and National League fans in particular. Continuity and tradition have long been part of the game’s unique and sometimes esoteric appeal.

The National League has played a season every year since 1876, when Ulysses S. Grant was president. It played during world wars, survived work stoppages, came back from terrorism. It is one of the longest-running continuous sports organizations in the world.

Among the very few who have been in business longer, the Kentucky Derby has been run every year since 1875 (it has been postponed this year, but will run in September), and in Britain, the Football Association has been playing since 1863 (the FA Cup has been awarded since 1871, but was interrupted by the two World Wars), and the Derby since 1780.

The unbroken tradition of National League baseball should not lightly be discarded, and doing so is not necessary in order to play the games.

Moreover, if this means using the designated hitter all season, the plan puts NL teams at a competitive on-field disadvantage: American League rosters for 2020 were built around having a DH, and NL rosters were not. There are economic reasons why the DH leads to different roster choices and has been an obstacle to harmonizing practice between the two leagues, and there is a whiff here of MLB trying to use a crisis to ram through a pre-existing labor-management agenda, including contracting the minor leagues.

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