Your Team Not Going to the World Series Anytime Soon? Choose a Second Team

Addressing the perceived dominance of Major League Baseball by a handful of teams will not be easy, but it is made more difficult by lack of understanding of the problem itself. For many casual fans the years 2000-2009 were a decade that was characterized by a handful of teams constantly appearing, and winning, in the post-season. This is partially due to the expanded playoff system which makes it easier for teams to get into the post-season, but it is also due to some overstatement.

In some respects the last ten years were more competitive than many fans might think. During the recently completed decade, seven NL and six AL, fully 13 out of 30 teams, appeared in the World Series. In the 1970s, by contrast, four NL and four AL, or eight out of 26 teams appeared in the World Series. The 1980s, a decade generally understood to be the last highly competitive decade saw seven AL and six NL teams appear in the World Series. In this regard, the 2000s were as competitive as any recent decade. This is, however, a somewhat narrow way to gauge the extent to which baseball is dominated by a few teams and does not address the more serious concerns of many fans and observers.

The two most common laments in this vein are that few teams are even contenders in any given year, and that some teams have not won a championship in years. The first lament is not so much wrong as over-simplified. The expanded playoff system means that many teams are in contention for a playoff spot well into the August or September. In most years more than half the teams finish within five games of a playoff spot. For example, last year, 11 teams either won a playoff spot of finished within five games of one. In 2008, the corresponding number was 12.

The real problem is not that most teams have little chance of making the playoffs, but that so many teams are chasing so few playoff spots, or more precisely that while most teams may have a good shot at vying for a playoff spot, some teams, such as the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers seemed all but guaranteed a playoff spot most years before the season even starts.

The second concern is more empirically accurate. Teams like the Pirates have not won a World Series since, 1979 or even appeared in the playoffs since 1992 and have little chance of getting back any time soon. The Royals who have not won a World Series, or even appeared in the playoffs since 1985, face a similar plight in the AL. Other teams, like the Giants have had even longer droughts after coming agonizingly close to the championships in 1962 and 2002.

This situation, however, has been part of baseball for a long time as for most of the sport’s history there were teams that remained out of contention for decades. For example, the St. Louis Browns won exactly one pennant between during the 20th Century before they moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles in 1954. The Athletics were relatively moribund for the middle of the 20th Century failing to win a pennant between 1931 and 1972. The Senators/Twins franchise, the Phillies and others experienced similar periods of a quarter of a century or more without winning anything.

Because there are now 30 teams in the Major Leagues, this problem will only get worse. If championships were evenly distributed, each team would win one every 30 years, which means a typical fan could expect to see their team win the World Series twice, or perhaps three times in their lifetimes. This might sound like a good arrangement for a Cubs or Giants fan, but perhaps less so for a Yankee, Red Sox or Cardinal fans.

While resolving this situation will not be easy, and most proposed solutions are laden with foreseeably precarious consequences, being a baseball fan may begin, or perhaps has already begun, to change. Many people may start to root for their local team-even if they are rarely in the post-season while choosing a favorite, perhaps from the other league, from among the more dominant teams. Thus Pirates fans, might think of the Red Sox, Yankees or somebody else as their second team while Royals fans might view the Mets, Phillies or Dodgers as their fallback playoff team. Rooting for a baseball team might become like rooting for the World Cup where many people have one favorite team-which sometimes doesn’t even make the tournament and one preferred team from among the ranks of the strong contenders. For example, I would love to see Georgia or Mexico win the World Cup, but will probably root for Brazil in the mean time once the tournament gets down to eight or so teams.

This sounds somehow blasphemous to the fan who has rooted his or her whole life for one team, but with thirty teams, little chance of that number declining and the movement of MLB into a two tiered system with some teams only occasionally being part of the first tier, it is probably the most practical and natural solution.