When baseball expanded to Tampa Bay and Phoenix for the 1998 season, there was a bit of confusion as to where those teams would play in the standings. With the last two expansion teams - the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins - having been placed in the National League, it made sense for the American League to get the two newest franchises. However Jerry Colangelo, the new owner of the Phoenix franchise, was adamant about his “Arizona Diamondbacks” playing in the National League due to regional ties to the Padres, Dodgers, and Giants.
MLB caved to Colangelo and put his Diamondbacks in the National League, but stuck to the plan of putting the new Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the American League. This would have given each league 15 teams, but at the time interleague play was much more limited, so an odd number of teams in each league would have caused havoc on the schedule. Baseball felt that creating more regional divisions would help improve their television ratings with fewer late night games on the West Coast for, and attendance figures due to regional rivalries. So radical realignment plans were proposed, including by David Glass, who was chairman of the board of the Royals following the death of owner Muriel Kauffman.
However large market teams with two clubs in one market balked at any radical realignment plans that coupled the two clubs together in the same division. Traditionalist also opposed breaking up old divisional rivalries, and there was the matter of what to do about the designated hitter rule. In the end, baseball punted on radical realignment and instead decided that one American League club could just move on over to the National League. But who?
The Milwaukee Brewers made a lot of sense as the club to move. Milwaukee had been a National League town when it first became a Major League city, when the Braves moved there in 1953. The Brewers had nearly three decades of history in the American League, including the 1982 pennant, but there wasn’t a deep history or affinity to the AL. However, Commissioner Bud Selig did not want to appear to be playing favorites to the team he still owned, so he gave the first pick to switch to another franchise - the Kansas City Royals.
David Glass had grown up a Cardinals fan and was familiar with the National League. In his proposed radical realignment plan, he had stuck the Royals and Cardinals in the same division, to foster a regional rivalry that could help the struggling Royals at the gate. While he seemed to favor such an outcome, he maintained that he would follow the wishes of the fans. Fans initially seemed to strongly favor a move to the National League, but the media pushed back.
“It's difficult to know what the fans want...The media seemed to whip up an anti-National League sentiment early, but in recent weeks my mail has turned. Now it's like, why not the NL?”
Reportedly, there was an internal split in the Royals’ hierarchy on which way to go. Without an owner, it was left to the Board of Directors, led by Glass, on what the Royals would do. Glass, who just weeks prior had taken himself out of the running to become the next Royals owner, finally indicated the Royals would stay in the American League, suggesting fans wanted it that way.
“The timing wasn't right. Everything didn't fit for us....It would be most helpful if we had an owner in place that could help in this decision.”
The Royals declining the offer to move paved the way for the Brewers to switch to the National League Central Division, where they have played ever since. Perhaps David Glass was only for the Royals switching under his realignment plan. Perhaps fan outcry, particularly by long-time season ticket-holders, changed his mind. Perhaps Commissioner Selig offered something to Glass in exchange for passing on the opportunity he strongly wanted for his own franchise.
But would a switch have benefited the Royals much? Even assuming the National League is an inferior league (the American League has a big edge in head-to-head matchups through the years), the Royals were too terrible most seasons to take advantage of playing against weaker opponents. Perhaps in 2003, when the Royals made an unexpected run and won 83 games, a switch to the NL could have bumped them up a few more wins and helped them win a weak NL Central that was won by the Cubs with just 88 wins. Perhaps in 2013, when the Royals made a late run and won 86 games, a switch could have put them in a Wild Card spot instead of the 90-win Reds. But most seasons the Royals still would have lost 90+ games, regardless of their league. And would the 2014 and 2015 clubs have had the same result had they played through the National League rather than the American League?
The Royals may have benefited at the gate a bit from having the Cardinals and Cubs in town so much, but adding a few million dollars probably likely doesn’t make a huge dent in how terrible the Royals were for many of those seasons. The Royals have found out more recently that gimmicks won’t do much for attendance, it is winning that brings out the fans in droves.
Then there is the matter of history. The Royals had won two American League pennants at the time they faced their decision. They had enjoyed great rivalries with the Athletics, Angels, and Yankees, none of whom were regional rivals, but were rather teams that stood in their way of a championship. Kansas City had been an AL team going back to the days of the Athletics, and perhaps even before that as they were the home of the Kansas City Blues, a minor league affiliate of the Yankees.
I grew up an “American League” fan. I liked the designated hitter. I hated seeing the NL beat up on the AL in the All-Star Game every year in the 1980s. I liked when the Royals visited Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, and Tiger Stadium. Making the switch might have been a cool new novelty for some fans, but some stick-in-the-mud fans like me hate drastic change. And don’t get me started on pitchers hitting.
But that is just my opinion. Others would have loved to have switched to see the Cardinals and Cubs, Mets and Dodgers, pitchers hitting, and bunts galore. Kauffman Stadium certainly plays as a National League park. Not having to pay for a designated hitter would have saved the cash-strapped Royals some money. Perhaps they develop their team completely differently in the NL.
What do you think? Should the Royals have moved back in 1998? If given the chance again, would you move the Royals to the National League?
Should the Royals have moved to the National League?
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