By DAVID DREYER Lenoir-Rhyne University
“I’m so tired of playing the same people,” New York Mets manager Buck Showalter recently said.
For the past couple of decades, Major League Baseball teams have played intra-divisional opponents up to 19 times a year during the regular season. Teams also at times match up against divisional foes in the postseason (such as when the New York Yankees have faced off against the Boston Red Sox in the playoffs), potentially playing an additional seven games against one another. Many players and managers likely get tired of seeing the other teams in their division. Fans get tired of it too.
Teams in the National Football League now play 17 regular season games (up from 16 as of last year), which means that football fans see their own hometown team less in a regular season than avid baseball fans who follow every game of their team during the regular season see their team’s divisional opponents. For me, as a Cincinnati Reds and Bengals fan, it means that, if I were able to watch every game for both teams, I would watch more Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals regular season games than I would watch Bengals regular season games in a year.
People are also reading…
I am sick of watching Pittsburgh teams in particular given my dislike of the Steelers and Penguins (in part due to their seemingly constant presence in the postseason). I don’t need to watch the Pirates 19 times a year.
Given the excessive number of games scheduled between intra-divisional opponents, MLB’s plan to shift to a more balanced schedule starting in 2023 is a positive development. The change will not only cut down on the number of repetitive within-division games but will also provide fans with more opportunities to see stars around the league while further fostering the development of natural geographic rivalries.
Playing each team within a division more times than each of those outside of the division is not in itself a bad thing. Intra-divisional games can be white-knuckle battles, especially when teams are contending for a division title. Frequently playing one another, along with geographical proximity and the at-times high stakes nature of within-division games, can lead to the establishment of intense rivalries, such as the Yankees’ rivalry with the Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ with the San Francisco Giants and the Cubs’ with the Cardinals.
But there can be too much of a good thing. How compelling are intra-divisional games when each game is just one of nearly 20 times that two teams face off against one another during the regular season? And for divisional opponents in which one team clearly outmatches the other, how many times do we want to watch a subpar team get beaten by a clearly superior opponent? Teams should play those within their division more than other teams. But not to the point of overkill.
Reducing the number of intra-divisional games opens the door for more interleague games (teams will now play 46 rather than 20). This will enable fans who follow their home team more opportunities to see star players from around the league.
As a Reds fan, I am glad to have the opportunity to watch Albert Pujols, Paul Goldschmidt, Adam Wainwright and others when I watch the Reds play within the National League Central against the Cardinals. But I would also like to watch more of Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout when the Reds have the opportunity to play interleague games against the Los Angeles Angels.
More interleague play, moreover, allows for the natural development of geographic rivalries. The Reds will play the Cleveland Guardians more frequently now in the “battle for Ohio.” The Cubs and Chicago White Sox, Dodgers and Angels, Giants and Oakland Athletics, and Yankees and Mets will face off in more crosstown rivalry games. Such contests can be particularly animated given that allegiances may divide families, friends and neighbors.
Crosstown competitors often have the foundations of rivalry already established even if they have not directly competed against one another. The Mets have long been viewed as the “little brother” of the Yankees in New York, which fostered resentment, even prior to the teams ever having played against each other in the regular season in the period prior to the advent of interleague play. The playing of “Subway Series” regular season games between the Mets and Yankees has resulted in the rivalry coming into its own.
There will still be plenty of intra-divisional MLB matchups. We will still have opportunities to size up teams in relation to their divisional adversaries during late summer pennant races. But MLB fans will soon also have more opportunities to watch games with teams outside of the division as they follow their preferred team. And that is something that, unlike watching the Pirates for the 19th time in a year, I (and I am sure others as well) will surely appreciate.
David Dreyer is a political science professor (and avid sports fan) at Lenoir-Rhyne University.