Grapefruit vs. Cactus, regular season?

CoronavirusRedImagine there’s no National League or American League, for one season, at least. Imagine, instead, there’s a Cactus League and a Grapefruit League, for just one season. If you take the word of USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, it could happen this year when baseball’s able to return. If it’s able to return this year.

For just one season I’d be all in. Thanks to a combination of a pestiferous viral pandemic and assorted and sundry responses running the line from ignorant to delayed to scrambling and back, it’ll be a short baseball season if the game can come back. A short season is better than no season.

Nightengale says the Cactus/Grapefruit realignment is just one idea being tossed around the horn for when the stay-at-home/social-distancing orders are lifted. But it’s not a terrible idea at all. That’s the alignment we get watching the spring exhibitions, so it isn’t exactly as though we’d be thrown into the Twilight Zone now.

“The plan would have all 30 teams returning to their spring training sites in Florida and Arizona, playing regular-season games only in those two states and without fans in an effort to reduce travel and minimize risks in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Nightengale writes. “The divisions would be realigned based on the geography of their spring training homes.”

Under this plan, Nightengale continues, both the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues would be arranged in three divisions each: North, South, and East for the Florida-based Grapefruit League and Northeast, West, and Northwest for the Arizona-based Cactus League.

And how would the teams be arrayed within those divisions? Nightengale has your answer, too:

Grapefruit League: North—New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates. South—Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles. East—Washington Nationals, Houston Astros, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins.

Cactus League: Northeast—Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Oakland Athletics. West—Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels. Northwest—Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals.

OK, the bad news is that the Cactus League would have fewer logistical and distance problems, since the Arizona spring camps are separated by no more than an hour’s drive apiece. The spread in Florida is a lot wider, which Nightengale notes might compel a few tricky maneuvers in the event any team personnel might need to be isolated.

A few traditional rivalries would get temporary short shrift to a certain extent, too. It’ll take a little getting used-to picturing the Yankees and the Red Sox in different divisions, not to mention the Dodgers and the Giants or the Cubs and the Cardinals likewise, with the Cubs and the Cardinals in different leagues in the bargain.

On the other hand, several in-state rivalries remain intact, such as they are. The Reds and the Indians for the honour of Ohio. The Phillies and the Pirates, for Pennsylvania power, never mind how lopsided it now is in the Phillies’ favour. The Dodgers and the Angels for bragging rights to Interstate 5 traffic jams.

How delicious would it be, also, to see even a temporary seasonal rivalry between last year’s World Series combatants—each of whom behaved rudely enough in the other’s house, one of whom won it all in the other’s house, with the winner also out-smarting the other’s flair for espionage even before the other’s exposure as electronic, off-field-based cheaters?

You say it’s theoretically possible that the World Series comes down to the Cardinals vs. the Cubs? Since the Grapefruit/Cactus alignment would keep them apart on what comes of the regular season, how surrealistically bristling would it be to see those two traditional division rivals otherwise in a hammer-and-tongs, few-holds-barred feud for a lease to the Promised Land?

Even if they can’t play the games in St. Louis or Chicago, oh boy will Cardinal and Cub fans go nutsh@t over that.

If there’s one thing baseball’s great for, it’s stirring the imagination. Now we could have one of the greatest imagination stirrers in recorded baseball history. And all it took was a nasty little virus out of a Chinese province that resembles a ball spiked with (depending on the developed image) rubber darts or red broccoli florets to do it.

Except that there are still a few problems. The players themselves would be far less than thrilled to be isolated into playing games strictly in one or the other region. Especially those who happen to be expectant fathers with their anticipated offspring due during the season and their wives expecting them to be there for the deliveries.

No matter how much money they’re paid to play, you can’t blame them for not wishing to be isolated even further from the families away from whom they spend enough time during a normal regular season.

Not to mention that, no matter how often some fans in the stands are bothersome nitwits (reality check: a few such fans are too many, and they’re there, they always have been there), enough players admit it’s just not the same playing in empty ballparks—which could still happen, depending on the extent to which the social distancing orders get lifted.

This much we know: Forget the dollars at stake, they want to play. Bears gotta bear, bees gotta bee, and baseball players gotta baseball. They’ll consider any and just about all alternatives if it means playing ball with the least amount of family encumbrance.

“When you’re trying to get really creative, why say no now?’’ says Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa—who now works as a senior advisor for Angels baseball operations, and whom Nightengale says was told of the possible Grapefruit/Cactus plan.

“So you have a unique season. I’ve got no problem with that,” La Russa continued. “I’m not sure we’ll be able play in our own cities across the country, so if you split it up like that, it’s a possibility.”

How would they play, then? Nightengale says each league would play twelve games each within their new temporary divisions, six apiece against other teams in the league, at least one doubleheader a night when all the teams are on the schedule because of the fifteen-team leagues.

And, everyone plays with a designated hitter.

Oh, you can hear it now. The “traditionalists” snarling and foaming over further polluting the game. Making those poor National League teams now in temporary league with those sissy American League teams take it like a manperson.

Never mind that last year the National League’s pitchers batted a whopping .133 overall or that all Show pitchers batted a lethal .100 overall. You want to keep wasting a lineup spot on that? Instead of your team putting what amounts to an extra cleanup hitter or an extra leadoff-type hitter in the spot? Instead of having a fifty percent or better shot at putting more runs on the board?

I was in the anti-DH camp for a long enough time. For life, actually. And for the same reason—“tradition.” I don’t dismiss tradition lightly, but there are traditions worth keeping and traditions worth dumping. Baseball’s dumped a few traditions best left to the scrap heap, too. Remember how long it was “traditional” to bar non-white players from “organised” baseball? Or to play strictly day ball?

Sure, it’s a blast (pun intended) when a pitcher hits one into the seats—once in the proverbial blue moon, but it’s just a little self-defeating to sustain some cockeyed idea of “tradition” when you might be adding a little more real run creation/production. “It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb,” the incomparable Thomas Boswell wrote last year.

But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.

As a result, some weaker pitchers survive in the NL. But survival-of-the-unfittest isn’t good for the evolution of a league. Over time, high-quality hitters migrate to the AL, where they can have longer, richer careers by finishing as a DH. That is the main reason the AL has dominated interleague play in this century.

By the way, the blow that arguably did the most to put the last World Series into the Nationals’ bank? After the same Max Scherzer pitched on less than fumes and somehow managed to keep things no worse than a 2-0 Nats deficit through five innings?

That would be Howie Kendrick, turning on a Will Harris cutter arriving off the middle of the plate, sending it off the Minute Maid Park right field foul pole with a bonk! “It doesn’t add up,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa when it was over. “The way [Harris] throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and [Kendrick] hits it off the foul pole.”

Kendrick was the Nats’ DH on the evening. Do you still want to argue against it sticking around after the coronaball season when baseball goes back to normal next year?

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