Trading Places: Why the Royals and Pirates should swap leagues
Kansas City has always been an AL town, Pittsburgh an NL town
The Royals would gain a natural rivalry with the St. Louis Cardinals
The Pirates could use the jolt to energize their fan base with something new
Some ideas are so good that, in retrospect, they seem obvious. Those Starbucks coffee cups, for example. All those years when you wanted to get a cup of coffee to go, you accepted that you would probably get second-degree burns in the process. That was just the price of coffee. And then, one day, the Starbucks people come up with cups made of thicker stuff, and as an added bit of protection they developed those little cardboard sports bras that you put on the cups to make them even easier to hold. Brilliant. Those cups, as much as the coffee itself, is why I think Starbucks now can charge $5 for a cup of coffee when, for a million years, coffee cost 50 cents or came free with breakfast. I should have come up with that Starbucks cup.
And so it goes with an idea presented by brilliant blog reader Brad Silverman. It's so good and makes so much sense that I'm disappointed in myself for not coming up with it first.
The Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates should trade leagues.
Now, before getting into the reasons, I should point out that a few years ago Kansas City had a chance to go to the National League and I was opposed to it then. There were good reasons to go, of course -- the chance for a true St. Louis rivalry, the opportunity to build a team without a DH, etc. -- but I was opposed because Kansas City has always been an American League town, even going back to the horrors of the Kansas City A's, even going back to the days when the Kansas City Blues were the Yankees' No. 1 farm team.
I was opposed because the many baseball people I talked to about it to felt like Kansas City was built on American League ball, built on hating the Yankees and booing Oakland and so on. For decades, Kansas City fans had rooted for the American League in the All-Star Game. For decades, Kansas City fans had accepted the designated hitter as part of the game. For decades, Kansas City has lived an American League mindset.
And, in part because Kansas City fans felt that way, it was Milwaukee that went to the National League, starting in 1998.
So what has changed in the dozen years since? Well, frankly, everything. For one, the prevalence of interleague play (even though it actually debuted in 1997) has more or less erased any true definition between the two leagues. When the Phillies and Yankees played in the World Series last year, it was the second time they had faced each other that year. There wasn't anything extraordinary about it. This year, the Royals have series with Colorado, Cincinnati, Houston and Washington, while Pittsburgh plays Detroit, Texas and Oakland -- really, to be blunt about it, what difference does it even make anymore?
It astonished me that in 1975, many of the Cincinnati Reds players saw Fenway Park for the first time before Game 1 of the World Series. The leagues were separate worlds then. I liked that. Much was left to the imagination. Well, those days are gone. All these years of interleague play have worn down just about all of the National League and American League individuality, or anyway it seems that way to me.
Two, at least in Kansas City, I don't think the American League is a natural fit anymore. Yes, I suppose this is because the Royals have been terrible. When the Royals were good, they had a rivalry with the A's, had a rivalry with the Yankees, had a rivalry with the Angels, they even had minor rivalries with the Red Sox and Orioles and, surprisingly, Texas. When you're good, you build rivalries naturally.
But in 1994, when baseball shook up the divisions, the Royals, like a team stuck in a bad dating cycle, suddenly found themselves in with a bunch of teams that they had no real feelings about. Cleveland? Minnesota? The Chicago White Sox? Then when Milwaukee made the jump, the division added... Detroit? Great teams. Just not much of a connection to Kansas City or Royals baseball at all.
The feeling was that rivalries would emerge. And maybe rivalries would have emerged had the Royals not gone into a 15-year slumber. In 1997, when the decision to jump to the NL was being considered, there was no reason for Kansas City fans to believe that the Royals were about to become the American League doormat. The Royals had only lost 90 games once in a quarter century (and exactly 90 at that; they had never lost 100). They had made the playoffs seven times, won two pennants, even their 1985 World Series victory was barely a decade past. Just three years earlier, led by a sparkling pitching staff with David Cone and Kevin Appier, the Royals had won 14 games in a row before the strike. Few in town seemed ready to believe that the Royals were about to become a laughingstock.
Anyway, the Royals did become a laughingstock, and those rivalries did not develop. Nobody cares when Cleveland comes to town. Nobody cares when Detroit comes to town. White Sox fans beat up a Royals first-base coach, and still, few care when the Sox show up. Is this the Royals' fault? Yes. In 2003, when the Royals were in first place at the All-Star Game in Chicago, the fans booed the two Royals players, and those were some of the most wonderful boos I ever heard. The Royals mattered! And then, very quickly, they didn't matter again.
Anyway, we're not talking fault. We're talking reality. The Royals have no American League footprint now. Even the Yankee hatred that has sustained Kansas City baseball fans for 50 years -- in Lawrence, Kan., Bill James would read the book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant to his children at bed time -- now seems distant and pointless, like the Yankees are in a different and higher league.
So, yes, I think the Royals and their fans are ready to go into another league now. And Pittsburgh? Well, that's tougher. Pittsburgh has a much, much longer connection to its league -- the Pirates go back to 1890 in the National League and the Alleghenys played a few years before that. The 1902 and 1909 Pirates with Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke are a couple of the greatest teams ever. The 1925 Pirates with Pie Traynor won the World Series, and, of course, so did the 1960 Pirates on Bill Mazeroski's home run, and so did the Roberto Clemente-inspired Pirates of 1971 and the We Are Family Pirates of 1979. The Pirates are entrenched in National League history, much more than the Royals are in the American League, and I think you have to respect that history.
That said, these are different days in Pittsburgh, too. It isn't just that the Pirates are on the way to their 18th consecutive losing season (a record unlikely to be broken anytime soon except by the Pirates next year). It isn't just that the Pirates were last, 12th, 15th, 14th and 12th in National League attendance in their last five years in Three Rivers Stadium, then moved into a beautiful new park -- maybe my favorite park in baseball -- where their NL attendance ranks shot up to 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th and last over the next five years.
No, the big thing for me is that Pittsburgh baseball needs a shot in the arm, something to get the good people of the city revved up about baseball again. It's more than the losing. It's more than the hopelessness. It's a malaise. A weekend series with the Houston Astros just ain't gonna cut through it.
And so, we have two teams clinging to lost history and in desperate need of something good to happen. And that's what leads to the Silverman Swap. Kansas City trades itself into the National League Central. A perfect fit. Every single team in the Central, except Pittsburgh, is in the Midwest. Not only do the Royals have the natural state-wide conflict with St. Louis, but also it is in there with other cities like itself -- Milwaukee and Cincinnati. While Houston means nothing to Pittsburgh -- hasn't since the NFL's Oilers left town -- there's some connection between the Astros and Royals. And, of course, there are Chicago Cubs fans everywhere.
Pittsburgh trades itself into the American League Central. A near-perfect fit. Pittsburgh and Cleveland is as natural a rivalry as you can get, as everyone knows from football. Pittsburgh-Detroit could build into something just as it has in hockey. You replace the Cubs with the White Sox, which is similar enough. Then, you have Minnesota, and, admittedly, that's just not a great rivalry for Pittsburgh. But it's as good as Houston.
Voila! Suddenly there's a whole new energy in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are out of the six-team tangle of the NL Central. (Instant bonus: they cannot finish sixth in the American League Central). They have something to spark baseball in the city again. They can despise Cleveland in a whole other sport. And, let's face it, the American League Central isn't all that good. The one thing that has kept Royals fans at least somewhat hopeful through all these years of decay is that nobody in the Central spends like sailors. The division is eminently winnable year after year -- and it has been won by every team but the Royals. Pittsburgh fans could come in believing that, with a few breaks, they could contend again.
Voila! Suddenly there's a whole new energy in Kansas City. The Royals are in the league where they have done very well, even the last few years. They have those games against the Cardinals that will keep the fans buzzing for at least a little while. And I think the Royals fans, after years of watching their teams get beat up by ridiculously good lineups, would enjoy watching pitchers hit.
In the end, of course, I don't know if this would work. I don't know if Pittsburgh fans would revolt against the idea of moving leagues after all these years. And I don't know if Royals fans would embrace the National League long-term. Yes, short term it would be a kick, but once those Cardinals games became routine, who knows? It does make a lot of sense, though. You know how sometimes players need a change of scenery? Well, I think a change of scenery might help the Pirates and Royals, too.
Sure, if you could throw all 30 teams into a pot and reconfigure the divisions, you would probably make a lot of changes. But you really can't do that. So one simple move, and I do think that the fans of two teams would end up very happy.
Then we could talk about trading the Arizona Diamondbacks to the American League West for the Texas Rangers or trading the Minnesota Twins for the Cincinnati Reds. But that's for another day.
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