Is there room in the Pacific Northwest for a second major league franchise? A team that would brand itself, say, the Portland Beavers?
During a talk with sports editors from across the country last week, commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t mention Portland as a potential destination for big-league baseball. But what he did say — that expanding MLB from 30 to 32 teams makes so much sense it’s inevitable — drew Portland into a discussion nobody was having a few years ago.
First things first: Nothing will happen on the expansion front until longtime stadium issues are settled in Oakland and Tampa Bay. If the best and the brightest minds in those markets can’t figure out a way to upgrade the fan experience, relocation is an obvious alternative.
But even if the Athletics and Rays relocate, MLB still will be a 30-team operation. Manfred envisions 32, in a format borrowed from the NFL: Eight four-team divisions.
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“Multiples of fours just work better than multiples of fives from a scheduling perspective — significantly better,” said Manfred, who realizes pennant races are more intriguing when teams in the same division are facing each other down the stretch. Four-team divisions also would solve the awkward demand for an interleague game to be played every day of the season.
Opponents of expansion argue that baseball’s talent pool is too shallow to open up 50 roster spots for two more teams. Their argument is absurd.
Yes, the percentage of American kids who play organized baseball has dwindled since the sport last expanded in 1998. But the U.S. population has grown 17 percent — from 275.9 million to 312.7 million — during those 18 years.
Three out of 10 might represent a larger proportion than four out of 14, but the last time I checked, four is more than three. And then there’s the influx of international players since 1998. Remember when there were doubts about Ichiro Suzuki’s ability to hit big-league pitching despite those seven consecutive batting championships he won in Japan?
Last Sunday, the Mariners’ lineup card against the Yankees included two players from Japan, three from the Dominican Republic and one from Cuba. The Yankees countered with a starting lineup representing, let’s see: Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands, Venezuela and Japan.
Baseball’s popularity spans the globe; those who excel in their homeland tend to seek the ultimate fortune in America. And we’re supposed to believe there’s not enough talent to fill another 50 roster spots? Seriously?
“Baseball is a growth sport, a growth business,” Manfred said. “Sooner or later, a growth business expands. I do see expansion, as a longer-type proposition.”
Which is where Portland becomes relevant. Among U.S. metropolitan areas, its population ranks No. 23, ahead of such established baseball markets as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Milwaukee.
What Portland doesn’t have is a big-league ballpark, but civic and business leaders seem to be on board with where a ballpark would be located (downtown, near the Rose Garden) and what it would look like (35,000 capacity, with a retractable roof).
One obstacle to Portland’s expansion bid is its proximity to Seattle, 180 miles away. The Mariners own territorial rights over Oregon and, for that matter, over Vancouver, B.C., another viable expansion market.
The Mariners will not, nor should not, give up this territorial domain without some compensation. Safeco Field was constructed with a retractable roof because owners understood Seattle is a destination point for out-of-town fans who require the assurance the game on the schedule will not be postponed.
But giving up their Portland fan base would provide the Mariners with some benefits: An authentic regional rival, for one. I point this out with apologies to the San Diego Padres, designated as Seattle’s annual interleague foe because they happen to share a spring-training facility and, let’s face it, nobody else was a candidate.
Imagine a four-team AL West as a kind of resurrection of the old Pacific Coast League: Seattle, Portland, Oakland and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. As presently configured, the division is an unwieldy quintet of three teams from the West Coast and two teams from the Southwest.
The Mariners began the season with three games at Texas, where they’ll return for a series in June, and another in August. Three separate trips to Houston also await, which explains why Seattle in 2016 will travel 47,704 road miles — not exactly to the moon, but a fifth of the way.
Remove the Rangers and Astros from the division, insert Portland in their place, and the Mariners not only are relieved of all those visits to the Lone Star State but assured nine or 10 sellout crowds at Safeco Field.
Not just big crowds, by the way. We’re talking about engaged crowds that begin buzzing a few hours before the first pitch.
For all the history behind a rivalry famously rooted in the legend of Babe Ruth, nothing better explains the contentiousness between the Red Sox and Yankees than simple geography: Boston is 215 miles from New York.
Another classic rivalry, Cubs vs. Cardinals, has thrived over the 250 miles of farmland separating the Chicago area from St. Louis.
Have I mentioned that the city of Portland is only 180 miles away from Seattle?
Expansion is happening, sooner or later, and while I might not live long enough to ride the southbound train for a Mariners season-opener at Portland, the commissioner has given me the incentive to try.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org