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Astros sale looks like part of bigger plans

Dierker: Astros sale looks like part of bigger plans

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Astros sale looks like part of bigger plans
I have been wondering why the approval of Jim Crane as the Astros' new owner has taken so long. Now I think I know.

For some odd reason, MLB seems to want to balance the leagues with 15 teams in each of them. I say odd for two reasons. First, 15 is an odd number; and second, I can't think of any advantage in doing it.

I've been told that the Astros' ownership decision has been delayed because the rest of the owners are more concerned about the fate of the Dodgers. While this is an important issue, I can't understand why it would prevent them from approving the sale of the Astros. These guys have been smart enough to amass the type of money necessary to buy franchises. They should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Clearly, there are other issues. The most obvious is that there has been talk of moving the Astros to the American League West. If the power brokers are convinced that this move is critical, they may be withholding approval of the Astros sale as leverage to force the new owner to approve a move to the AL.

I must be missing something. It would be to the Rangers' advantage to play more games in the Central Time Zone, because it would have a positive impact on local television revenue. And both teams would benefit from a rivalry that would likely boost attendance. But what the Rangers gain in TV money, the Astros would lose.

It also seems the owners are interested in more postseason games. I can't see how this would be easier with two 15-team leagues. The only sensible thing about the 15-team format is that it would allow for a more balanced schedule. Ostensibly, each team would have a one-in-five chance to win its division. And they would play the same number of games against the same teams.

I squealed about the uneven schedule that Interleague Play created when I was managing, but no one listened. For the first five seasons, they made it even more uneven by scheduling Interleague games that kept the teams in their own time zones for TV: National Leage East vs. AL East, etc. This ensured that the highest percentage of games possible would be played in prime-time TV slots. Interleague Play helped television revenue, but it inhibited attendance. Every team wanted to play a home series with the Yankees and Red Sox. But initially, only the NL East teams played them.

The original purpose of Interleague Play was to allow fans in every city to see every team in the other league. When it became obvious that TV revenue trumped this noble concept, MLB relented and now that is possible every three years.

This system seemed to promote parity, but it was bastardized by scheduling games between territorial rivals like the Astros and Rangers every year. So once again, strength of schedule was subordinated to strength of revenue.

So now, why wouldn't I suspect that the egalitarian notion of 15 teams in each league is merely a smoke screen, and that somewhere in the formula there is the opportunity to make more money? It's got to be there somewhere. I just can't figure out where.

While the luxury tax and equal sharing of internet revenue has provided great help to small-market teams, attendance is still important. Just ask the Tampa Bay Rays. They drew only 15,000 fans to their division-clinching game last year. They have a great organization, top to bottom, like the Expos of the 1980s. But they can't make money.

Now the Expos are in Washington, D.C., and they have a better chance to compete at the gate. But the Rays are still in St. Petersburg. So what is more important, a balanced schedule or the viability of all the franchises?

Just to throw a monkey wrench into the issue, I have a modest proposal: Move the Rays to San Marcos, Texas.

Where?

San Marcos is a college town, about a half-hour drive from both Austin and San Antonio. Those two cities have a larger, younger population than Tampa-St. Pete and all the other small towns in that part of the Florida Gulf Coast. And there is great population growth in that part of Texas. In addition, there is an enormous outlet mall in San Marcos that draws tourists from all over Texas and beyond. There is open land, and lots of other things to do in the area. And guess what? The Texas economy is healthy, even in the midst of the recession.

Anybody ready for the TexMex Banditos?

It will never happen, of course. Both the Astros and Rangers fight for the Austin and San Antonio markets. And they would fight even harder to prevent another franchise in Texas.

But this is just a roundabout way of saying that if MLB wants to make a change, it should consider first things first. Helping the Rays is more important than having 15 teams in each league. It is also more important than helping the Dodgers. And who knows? Moving the Rays to a better market may lead to an even better way of reaching competitive balance within and across the landscape of baseball.

Larry Dierker played in the Major Leagues for 14 seasons and guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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