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Astronomical shift will pay off in long run for baseball

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Bud Selig on the Astros' move and MLB's new playoff format: 'This is clearly for the long term.' (AP)  
Bud Selig on the Astros' move and MLB's new playoff format: 'This is clearly for the long term.' (AP)  

MILWAUKEE -- Baseball may regret allowing Jim Crane in.

Baseball won't regret Thursday's big switch.

The new Astros owner could still be trouble. The Astros' new division isn't.

Baseball can survive one bad owner, and perhaps Crane won't even turn out to be that. In fact, people in the game are convinced that with former Houston Rockets president George Postolos running the team for Crane, the Astros will be just fine.

We'll see about that, but at least the ownership change helped ease baseball into a realignment plan that should work. Because 15 teams in each league (and five teams in each division) fits baseball so much better than the awkward 16-14, four teams in one division, six in another format in use for the past 14 seasons.

On baseball's historic Thursday, commissioner Bud Selig presented this new format (which won't take effect until the 2013 season) as one that might last for a generation or more.

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"This is clearly for the long term," he said.

He could well be right.

There's no talk of expansion. There's no talk of contraction. Baseball is going to have 30 teams for the near- and mid-term future.

Those are givens. So is interleague play, and so is a league structure that prevents full geographic realignment. There was much less talk of full realignment -- a Northeast Division, say, that includes the Mets, Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies -- than there was the last time baseball realigned, after the 1997 season.

Back then, the Brewers moved from the American to the National League, after the Royals refused a similar switch and after then-Astros owner Drayton McLane refused a switch to the AL that would have allowed for a more significant realignment.

Fourteen years later, we're comfortable with the idea of the Brewers as an NL team. We're comfortable with the most recent expansions, to the point where we don't even think of the Rays and Diamondbacks as "new" teams.

A few years from now, we'll be just as comfortable with the Astros as an AL team, and with a schedule format that includes interleague play every day of the season.

And teams will be happier with a setup that is many times fairer than the current one, with each team in a division playing basically the same schedule.

We'll accept the idea of two wild cards in each league, and we'll come to love the idea of the one-game wild-card playoff that will launch each October of playoff baseball. Some critics are calling it "manufactured drama," but seriously, what's wrong with manufacturing a little drama?

"People can be critical, I understand that," Selig said.

Agreed ... and allow me to be critical for a moment.

Selig said he saw no quick resolution to the designated-hitter issue, one that becomes a bigger deal with the necessary increase in the number of interleague games. The new schedule isn't absolutely set yet, but most likely each team will play 30 games against teams in the other league.

That means each AL team will play 15 games in which it can't use a DH, and each NL team will need a DH for 15 games. That means that the Red Sox can't use David Ortiz for 9 percent of their games (assuming they re-sign him), and that Victor Martinez is a pinch-hitter for 9 percent of the Tigers' schedule.

Some people in baseball believe the problem will eventually be solved by expanding the DH to both leagues, but more people insist that there is still far too much resistance for that to happen anytime soon.

Selig said he doesn't see it without full geographic realignment, and he said that full geographic realignment isn't coming.

"I don't see that on the horizon," he said.

Good. There are advantages to placing teams by geography, but there are far more disadvantages. Baseball's leagues don't mean nearly what they once did, but they still haven't been reduced to the point where they're like football's conferences.

I know that, because when I suggested back in June that the Astros should switch leagues, I heard from tons of Astros fans who hated the idea.

From what I understand, many of them still do.

I get it, even though I see all the reasons why this move is actually better for the Astros in the long run.

"I grew up an Astros fan," Rangers president Nolan Ryan said the other day. "I looked at the Astros as a National League team. But I think if [the Astros and Rangers] are both competitive in the same year, it's going to create a good rivalry."

The Angels are said to be unhappy, too. They apparently wanted the Diamondbacks in their division, rather than the Astros, because the travel would have been easier.

But the Astros were always the team that made the most sense to move, and the Astros were always going to be the easiest to move, if only because the sale of the team from McLane to Crane gave baseball leverage to force the move.

As it was, it took months, and it took money, because Crane got a reduction in his purchase price.

It took baseball accepting Crane, despite some reservations about his background and his financing. If there had been other potential buyers willing to pay as much for the team, perhaps Crane wouldn't be the Astros' owner today.

He is the owner, and perhaps baseball will come to regret that, as they have come to sorely regret letting Frank McCourt into their club. But as painful as the last couple of years of the McCourt experience have been for all involved, he's selling the Dodgers now.

He's gone, the Dodgers will stay. Someday Crane will be gone. By then, he might be a footnote to what happened Thursday, when baseball adopted a structure that makes more sense.

They'll realign again someday. But the prediction here is that this one will last for a while, that it will outlast Jim Crane, and that it will be seen as one of the best decisions baseball has made.

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