September is here, and the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers are neck and neck in the American League East, with the Milwaukee Brewers closing fast. But don't bother reaching for the regular-season schedule to see when the Red Sox and Tigers will have their final showdown of the year. You would be wasting your time. The two contenders played their last game against each other on Aug. 14. Unless the division race ends in a tie and Boston and Detroit meet in a playoff in October, their next confrontation won't take place until spring.
The Brewers' schedule is even worse. When they played the Tigers Sunday, it was their American League East finale. Milwaukee, which was designated the division's "swing team," will finish the year with a string of 22 games against the Chicago White Sox, Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics and California Angels. In other words, if the Brewers, who were four games behind at week's end, are to make themselves felt in the race this month, they'll have to rely on other teams to knock off their division rivals.
The American League is still paying a heavy price for its expansion in 1977, when the Mariners and the Toronto Blue Jays came aboard. Not only has the league been burdened with a perennial loser in Seattle, but it has also been saddled with an unwieldy, 14-team schedule that often doesn't allow for late-season confrontations between division contenders. In 1977 and '78, the league played an unbalanced schedule (90 games against each division rival and 72 against each interdivision opponent) that frequently included five or six series with each division foe. But in '79 the American League West owners, looking to bolster attendance, demanded that they be given an equal number of dates with the big-drawing Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers. So the league came up with a more nearly balanced schedule, in which a team plays each division adversary 13 times and each interdivision team 12.
Now an American League team plays more interdivision games (84) than it does division ones (78). By mid-August some of the clubs have completed play with two or three of their division opponents, and every year one team (the swing team) in each division plays almost all its September games against teams from the other division. As a result, for years the battle cry in the American League East was, "Play .500 against the East and beat the stuffing out of the West."
That's not how things work in the National League. For example, the main rivals in the NL East, the New York Mets and the Pittsburgh Pirates, have met 14 times so far this season, but they still have four games left in September, because each team in the league is scheduled to play all of its division rivals down the stretch. One reason baseball hasn't expanded into such potentially lucrative markets as Tampa, Phoenix, Buffalo and Denver is that the National League owners have refused to go along with expansion unless six new teams are added—four in the National League, two in the American—for a total of 32. Why? To make sure the schedule is balanced.
Still, though the American League has to work with 14 teams instead of 12, that doesn't mean it has to follow a schedule that takes the thrill out of September. The premise that the West teams need to play the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers to draw fans is no longer valid. Ten years ago Minnesota and Oakland were struggling franchises, but in 1988 the Twins will draw close to 3 million, the Athletics 2.3 million and both the Royals and Angels nearly 2.5 million. The West is no longer a stomping ground for the East. In fact, this year West teams have a slight competitive edge over the East.
So what should the American League do to improve its schedule? First, it should forget how many dates the Mariners et al. have with the Yankees and other box office sensations. In fact, the league should completely forget about trying to balance the schedule. Who cares if the Tigers play five games against the Angels in Anaheim and only four in Detroit? Or if the Red Sox don't fulfill their quota of embarrassing moments in Royals Stadium?
Second, the league should cut the number of times a team plays each interdivision opponent to nine, which would mean that a club would play 99 games in its own division and only 63 in the other. That would give a team three home-and-home series with each division rival—16 games against three of the teams and 17 against the other three.
This plan may not be as balanced as the current schedule, but the beauty of it would be that when September rolled around you would know that the division contenders—say the Tigers and the Red Sox—would have at least one more shot at each other. And that's what baseball is all about, isn't it?