Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 22: Astros switch leagues
We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.
Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.
Next up: number 22 — The Astros switch leagues
From their advent as the Colt .45s in 1962 through the 2012 season, the Houston Astros played in the National League. First they were in the unitary National League then, with the start of divisional play in 1969, they joined the NL West. Finally, realignment came in 1994, putting them in the NL Central.
At first that realignment featured some sanity: five teams in each league’s East and Central and four teams in each team’s West. Leagues had to be even, of course, because interleague play had not yet begun.
Then, in 1998, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks began play. That required some shifting to keep from having an odd number of teams in each league. The Tigers left the AL East so the Rays could join that division, moving to the AL Central. In order to keep an even number of teams in each league, the Brewers -- owned by Commissioner Bud Selig’s family, and thus amenable to the league’s wishes -- moved to the NL Central. With that, and the Dbacks in the NL West, the National League had 16 teams and the American League stayed with 14.
This created a new problem: a National League Central division with six teams and an American League West with only four teams. Issues of unfairness emerged and, after several years during which fans became used to interleague play, which began in 1997, Major League Baseball thought it best that they move to two 15-team leagues, requiring someone to leave the NL and join the AL.
The Astros were chosen for a couple of reasons. One reason was that, if they were to join the AL West, a natural rivalry would be created with their fellow Texas team, the Rangers. Another reason was practical: the Astros were up for sale and, since (a) Major League Baseball needed an owner to agree to move his team; and (b) any prospective new owner basically had to bend over backwards to please Major League Baseball in order to be allowed into the club, the conditions were ripe for a deal. Bud Selig asked prospective Astros owner Jim Crane to move his team to the AL West.
Crane wasn’t enamored with the idea at first, in large part because moving to the West meant more team travel than the Astros would’ve had if they had remained in the NL Central. There was also a suggestion that the team’s TV money might suffer due to playing AL teams which the Houston TV market was not used to watching or was not interested in watching. Crane also, correctly, realized that Major League Baseball might pay him for his trouble if he held out some. A report in late 2011 had him asking for a $50 million discount on his purchase price of the Astros but, in the end the New York Times reported, he got $70 million. That’ll pay for some jet fuel.
The Astros first season in the American League came in 2013. It was their worst season in franchise history -- they lost 111 games -- but that had less to do with realignment than it did with the fact that the team was in the midst of one of the all-time tank jobs/rebuilding efforts in the game’s history. Indeed, they had lost over 100 games in their final two years in the National League as well. After one more year of losing, the Astros made the playoffs in 2015. Two years later they’d win the World Series. You basically know their story by now. It’s all worked out for them pretty dang well, all things considered.
It’s also quite possible that one day the Astros’ move to the American League will seem quaint as far as realignment goes.
Every couple of years someone floats a plan for radical realignment. The elimination of the leagues, which now exist mostly in name only, is occasionally brought up. Radical realignment plans which more closely align teams by geography get tossed around from time to time and often feel like trial balloons sent up by the league. Certainly if we see another round of expansion one day -- or if either of baseball’s two stadium-challenged clubs, the Rays or A’s, move cities -- a lot of shuffling will have to occur.
At present, however, the Astros move is the most recent data point in realignment. And one that still seems significant. At least to old timers like me who still sometimes have to remind themselves of the league in which they play.