As part of their sale to new owner Jim Crane, the Houston Astros shift to the American League in 2013, specifically the AL West division. It will be weird to see the Astros in the AL, and strange for the NL Central (and by extension, the AL West) to finally align with the rest of baseball with five-team divisions. The Astros will become only the second team in MLB history to change leagues, after the Brewers were the first in 1998. Crane, a Houston businessman, had been in negotiations for the Astros and other MLB teams for years when progress was made toward his purchase of the Astros in 2011. As part of the agreement with former owner Drayton McLane, as well as Commissioner Bud Selig and MLB, Crane received a discount of $70MM on the original sale price of $680MM, knocking the price for the Astros down to $610MM. MLB kicked in half of the discount ($35MM) as part of the final deal and McLane ‘ate’ the other half. Reportedly, former owner McLane was the one who agreed to the move to the AL in order to sell the team, and new owner Crane was given a significant concession to agree to that framework. Of course, all of this set off a firestorm of criticism in Houston and elsewhere.
Many Houston fans were (and still are) understandably upset at the team moving to the American League after 50 years in the National League. That’s tough, for sure; likely it’s excruciating. As much as I empathize with the frustration of Astros fans, however, I don’t agree with some folks (probably a small minority) whose complaints target the Milwaukee Brewers and accuse Selig and the Brewers organization of collusion in an attempt to keep the Brewers in the NL. Perhaps we’ll never know what other realistic options were out there in terms of realignment to a 15/15 team split with the NL and AL. Certainly, moving one team would be less earth-shaking to baseball than moving several.
Looking back at the Brewers’ move to the NL in 1998, there was a great deal of conspiracy-theorizing and hand-wringing back then. With the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays entering MLB, the two leagues suddenly had an odd number of teams (15 each rather than 14 each), necessitating a decision on how to deal with that discrepancy. Without constant interleague play, one team in each league would be forced to wait until there was an available intraleague team ready to play. That scenario is just totally unfeasible, unworkable, and the schedule would be a nightmare.
The Kansas City Royals were reportedly offered the chance to move to the NL, but rejected it for a mix of reasons. Some people thought MLB’s offer to the Royals represented a wily subterfuge that Selig used to show that he’d offered NL membership to a team other than the Brewers first. However, the Brewers vacating a spot in the AL Central made geographical sense in that it allowed some other shifting to take place. The Detroit Tigers moved to the AL Central from the East and the expansion Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays moved from their absurd initial spot in the AL West to the AL East. Ironically, the Brewers were originally moved to the NL because MLB at that time wanted to get away from having a 15/15 team split, which requires ongoing interleague play throughout the year. Even as the tables have turned in the last couple years toward a 15/15 team split, Selig had reportedly been reluctant to see interleague play run throughout the year. “I came to 15-15 a little slower than many of my colleagues,” Selig said in 2011. He has come around to the idea, though, and to me 15/15 makes the most sense overall instead of having a different number of teams in each league. As we’ve seen with 2013 baseball schedules, the timing of constant interleague play in this new universe is different and a bit jarring at times, but the volume of interleague play is not substantially increased.
Whatever the motivations and influences behind these designs, the truth is that Milwaukee was a National League city before Houston became one. Milwaukee welcomed the Braves in 1953, nine years before the expansion Colt .45s reached Houston. Milwaukee’s team was stolen in the name of greed, in effect, or it would likely still be a Braves town today. My point is not to argue against the NL tradition in Houston, which is clearly established and strong. I simply mention this because 1) Milwaukee, unlike other Midwestern AL cities, had a prior connection to the National League when the proposal of moving one team to the NL to essentially unbalance the leagues arose, and 2) Milwaukee wasn’t moved to the NL to try and force Houston out. Houston’s fate was sealed by the reversal of MLB in how it viewed a 15/15 team split between leagues and the fact that the Astros’ sale put the franchise in a vulnerable position at the wrong time.
Now Houston Astros fans, at least those who haven’t defected, will have to endure or embrace, welcome or neglect baseball change in their city. Instead of seeing the pitchers hit for the first time in 33 years, as Milwaukee fans did, Astros fans will have to accept a designated hitter for the first time ever. Or will they? The DH is actually optional, so Houston could make a philosophical stand and just refuse to use the DH, or in other cases forfeit the DH. The Brewers forfeited the DH several times in the 1970s, which is quite fascinating stuff. Of course, Houston’s forfeit of the DH would likely put them at a severe disadvantage against AL teams, if used regularly. The Astros will lose their historical rivals and gain new ones, but with increased interleague play, the team will see NL teams more often and play NL ball, albeit not in Houston.
Some cool things are taking place with the change to the AL in Houston, in my opinion. Astros fans appear to be split on whether it will be a good or bad thing to face the in-state rival Texas Rangers more often, but the 2013 regular season will start with a bang in Houston as Texas visits starting March 31. I have been to Houston and caught an Astros game there but I don’t know really whether Houston identifies itself as a Western, Southwestern, or Southern place, or something else. I’m not sure if the majority of fans there prefer a field of Central division foes from the upper Midwest or teams on the West Coast. One casualty for Houston fans will be that when they face division opponents other than the Rangers on the road, the games will start later than normal because Houston is in the Central time zone while Seattle, Anaheim and Oakland play in the Pacific.
Again, this is just my opinion, but I really like the Astros’ uniform and logo changes. As an outside observer, I like some of the old Astros uniforms and logos from the ‘70s and ‘80s. But I never cared for the broken or shooting star logo and the dark red and pinstripes the team wore for the last 12 years or so. Additionally, the 1990s style was worse, even worse than the Brewers’ muddled 1990s stuff. I think it’s really cool that the franchise has updated their classic looks, going back to the orange and blue along with the block ‘H’ logo on the star. Since the team is making a grand transition to a new reality in 2013, it only made sense to update the team’s duds and I think they’ve done a great job. I look forward to seeing the Astros’ new look in action.
The Astros’ 2013 transition is a tumultuous change for baseball fans in south Texas and Astros fans everywhere. They will have to get used to a brand new outlook for their baseball team, and certainly not many a view is rosy at the moment. The AL West has evolved into perhaps the best division in baseball, with Texas and Anaheim as powerhouse teams and Oakland forever dangerous. Seattle has its issues, though, and Houston, after a few more years developing its homegrown players, could become a contender once again. Houston is the country’s fourth-largest city and I don’t expect that market to accept losing baseball for long, especially after dealing with the league change. New owner Crane will have to show the fans of Houston that he’s not only willing to rebuild the farm system but also take the necessary steps to fortify the big-league team when the time comes.
To all Astros fans: Good luck, it was fun going against your team in division play over the last 14-15 years; I have an appreciation for your baseball tradition now that I possessed none of when our teams weren’t in the same league. Perhaps, begrudgingly, you will make some interesting and fruitful baseball discoveries in your improvised American League experience.