Why Astros’ switch to AL is big deal

Hockey and football have conferences. Basketball does, too – or at least basketball did, in the good old days when the millionaires played nice.

But baseball is different. Baseball is better.

Major League Baseball has two leagues. They don’t operate separate offices, as they once did, but they are distinct. And I’m not just talking about David Ortiz and his DH brethren. The AL and NL have different styles, different cultures, and different identities.

Boston is an American League city. St. Louis is a National League city. Why? Well, the game just evolved that way.

Michael Young and A.J. Pierzynski are American League players. Edgar Renteria and Scott Rolen are National League players. They just are, in a way that’s hard to explain to non-baseball fans.

That’s why what is happening with the Houston Astros is a very big deal.

And why the first realignment in more than a decade will be very good for the game.

The Astros’ move to the AL, beginning with the 2013 season, became official Thursday with the transfer of ownership from Drayton McLane to Jim Crane. With the ratification of the new collective bargaining agreement — which might be less than a week away — the Astros’ move from the NL will be complete.

This should have been done months ago, but a number of factors contributed to the delay. MLB officials needed to complete their due diligence on Crane, and they were preoccupied with the Dodgers’ ownership mess for much of the year. The scrutiny was amplified by past complaints from female and minority employees about hiring practices at a company Crane operated.

The CBA negotiations had a perpetual — and, as it turned out, concurrent — effect on the sale. At the behest of the players’ union, MLB officials have agreed to shift the sport’s competitive structure to two 15-team leagues. The Astros were the most logical candidate to move — even apart from the sale — given the existence of a ready-made, in-state AL rival.

Initially, McLane and Crane resisted a switch to the AL. In the end, Crane relented. All it took was a $70 million discount on the $680 million purchase price, according to the Houston Chronicle, with McLane and MLB splitting the cost of the inducement in half.

Yeah, I’d be OK with hiring a DH if someone gave me $70 million.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. The Astros have been a National League club for 50 years. That’s less than half the tenure of charter franchises like the Pirates, Giants, and Reds. But there’s a lot of history there, including the Astros’ first (and only) NL pennant six years ago.

The fans know and understand the National League game. It wasn’t long ago that they watched then-Astros lefty Mike Hampton claim the first of his five straight Silver Slugger awards.

But let’s be honest: The Astros can make this transition more easily than most clubs, because their current roster isn’t very good. Ed Wade (or a new GM, if Crane decides to make a change) can rebuild the team in the AL style. The Astros will need to acquire a DH after next season, which gives them plenty of time to adjust. And if there is any upside to finishing with the worst record in baseball, it’s a blank canvas.

The Texas Rangers are happy; Nolan Ryan, the current Rangers president and past Astros legend, said publicly last month that he’s in favor of the move. It will build fan interest in our nation’s second-largest state, at a time when Houston needs to jolt its torpid fan base.

The other clubs in the AL West will likely be less enthused, knowing that their road games in Houston will air in drive time back home. But that is a small concession when compared with the more equitable path to the playoffs — for all teams — that the 15/15 concept will provide. The union has craved fairness in determining the postseason field. Now, they have it. Baseball can implement a more balanced schedule, and the institution of a second wild card in each league is a reality now, possibly as early as 2012.

The process behind it all was lengthy and imperfect, with repeated interruptions and the uncomfortable history of Crane’s settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But the basic outcome – the Astros moving to the AL – is a happy one. That the franchise effectively sold its NL identity for the sum of $70 million tells you something about how much it mattered in the first place.