Three-division setup approved by AL, NL 6 pennant races to spawn 8 playoff teams

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOSTON -- Operating on the theory that six divisional races are better than four, major-league owners yesterday embraced a much-debated plan for realignment.

By a 27-1 vote -- Texas was opposed -- the owners agreed to slice the American and National leagues into three divisions each and to move to the revamped setup next season.

The owners also appeared to be days away from assigning the 28 clubs to their new divisions, a job so sensitive it had threatened to delay or completely derail the new setup.

For that, the owners apparently could thank Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga, who offered to have his team slotted in the would-be NL Central Division. That cleared the way for Pittsburgh and Atlanta to join the NL East Division -- something ownership of both clubs have insisted on.

Under the tentative AL realignment, the Orioles would remain in the Eastern Division, with Boston, Detroit, New York and Toronto.

Yesterday's vote, coming on the final day of the clubs' quarterly meeting, also moved the owners to the crucial next step in the approval process -- getting the go-ahead from the players union.

Baseball officials said they hoped they could come to agreement quickly with the players -- something that must happen before the leagues could be realigned.

That didn't appear to be a big obstacle last night. Donald Fehr, executive director of the players union, which first proposed a three-division plan, said the owners' action was "a positive one."

"It's a move in the right direction. Some remaining issues have to be resolved, but nobody expects a delay," said the union chief.

For their part, the owners echoed familiar sentiments about the new divisions and how they might ignite fan interest at a time when the sport's all-important TV rights fees are in free fall.

"Our surveys have shown it will enhance fan interest in the waning days of the baseball season," said Boston's John Harrington, who is chairman of the committee that has been reviewing the baseball divisions for a year.

"This is a way for more clubs to label themselves as successful by vying for more playoff spots."

If nothing else, the proposed new alignment would qualify more teams for postseason play. Under the plan the owners appear ready to adopt, the three divisional champs in each league would get spots in the playoffs, along with a wild-card entry, which would qualify as the second-place finisher with the best record.

The first round of playoffs would be best-of-five series, with the wild-card club matched against the division winner with the best record. The only exception would be if that set up a series between the wild card and the champion of its division.

Club executives announced a number of other details of their realignment proposal as well. For example, the new plan calls for a continuation of balanced schedules in both leagues at least through 1997, with teams playing opponents 12 or 13 times each.

Some things remain unsettled. Within seven days, the club officials will vote on a final plan matching clubs to divisions. Florida's peace-making appeared to complete the lineup, but Harrington said the 28 clubs, presented with that option yesterday, "needed time to digest the impact that would have on them."

"The triangle situation should be resolved in seven days," Harrington said.

Atlanta and Pittsburgh figure to be the clubs doing the long and hard thinking about the Florida decision. The Braves, now of the NL West, had obvious geographic reasons for wanting to move to the NL East. But club officials also were said to be happy about the possibilities of building a rivalry with the Marlins.

Braves president Stan Kasten left the meeting without comment. But the Florida move clearly ran counter to the Atlanta plan.

Pittsburgh officials, on the other hand, had to be pleased with Huizenga's move. They'd been under some pressure to accept a slot in the NL Central, an option they resisted stubbornly throughout the debate.

"We have natural competitive alliances with Philadelphia, Montreal and New York," said Doug Danforth, Pirates board chairman.

Asked during a break in the meeting whether the Pirates might yield on the point, Danforth said it was doubtful, adding, "I don't think we could be persuaded otherwise."

However, it appears there is little the Braves or Pirates could do about it at this point. They, along with the Marlins, voted yesterday to waive their right to veto any reassignment -- part of the league's constitution -- so the NL could present a unified three-division front.

In the AL, where a three-quarters majority is needed for reassignment of teams, the plan sparked far less controversy. What little there was effectively was dealt with Wednesday when Cleveland accepted a spot in the AL Central, a move that allowed Detroit the assignment it dearly wanted in the AL East.

The Orioles apparently had no serious reservations about moving to a three-divisional setup.

"We took a step forward; we're coming up with a plan that we hope will please the fans and enhance the popularity of the sport even more," Orioles president Larry Lucchino said after the meeting.

Texas remained staunchly opposed to the plan to the end, in part because the Rangers don't like the idea of being bunched with teams that are two time zones away.

But George W. Bush, the club's general partner, said his objections also were philosophical. "I argue we should not tinker with the fundamentals of our game," Bush said. "I would not like to see our team in the playoffs if we finished second. We wouldn't deserve to be in a playoff."

HOW PLAYOFFS WOULD WORK

Under a plan passed yesterday by the owners:

* Four teams from each league will make the playoffs -- three division champions plus a wild-card team (second-place team with the best record).

* The first round of the playoffs will be a best-of-five, with the wild-card team playing the champion with the best record.

* The wild-card team will be at home for the first two games of the series. The next three games will be at the home of the division champion.

* The two playoff winners in each league will play a best-of-seven. The team with the home-field advantage (awarded on a rotating basis) will play host to the first two games and the last two games.

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