(Adds details of the Lone Star Series in 14th paragraph.)
Nov. 18 (Bloomberg) -- The Houston Astros are headed to the American League after 51 years in the National League, a move that balances the number of teams in Major League Baseball and sets up a potential rivalry with the Texas Rangers.
As part of the team’s sale to Crane Capital Group’s Jim Crane, which was approved by MLB yesterday, the Astros would join the AL as soon as the 2013 season.
The Astros will become the first major league team to change leagues since 1998, when the Milwaukee Brewers moved to the NL Central division from the AL Central.
“The greatest thing this sport has going for it is its history and its tradition, so you try to disturb that as little as you can,” MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said during a news conference. “But this is clearly for the long term.”
The realignment will give each league 15 teams -- the NL currently has 16 clubs, two more than the AL. It will also set up three five-team divisions in each league, with the Astros joining the Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners in the AL West. The Astros now are part of the NL Central, the only division that has six teams.
Selig said the 15-15 alignment of teams will necessitate interleague play “from opening day on,” as there will be an uneven number of teams in each league. Baseball currently has two periods of interleague play a season.
“It won’t be perfect. Nothing in any schedule is ever perfect, but this will be very good,” said Selig. “Maybe the difference will attract people.” He said some sample schedules have been worked up, without disclosing specifics.
Selig and major league owners also approved adding two more wild-card playoff berths yesterday, meaning 10 of 30 teams will qualify for the postseason.
“I hope we have it for next year, but we have some judgments to make on that point,” Selig said.
Nolan Ryan, who played nine seasons with the Astros and is now the Rangers’ president, told the Houston Chronicle he’s happy to have Houston in the AL West because it may create an intrastate rivalry and adds a second club in the Central time zone and not on the West Coast such as Oakland, Los Angeles and Seattle.
“We’re at a disadvantage in our division that way because so many of our games start at 9 o’clock, and it hurts our TV ratings,” Ryan told the newspaper. “If both teams are competitive in a given year, it will create a good rivalry within the state. There’s a lot of pluses from our perspective.”
Start of Rivalry?
The Astros had the major leagues’ worst record this year at 56-106, while the Rangers tied for third best at 96-66 and reached the World Series for the second straight season. The Astros last made the World Series in 2005, when they were swept by the Chicago White Sox.
“I talked to Nolan Ryan last night and he said it’s going to really be great when we’re contending for the division title and going back and forth,” Crane, whose group purchased the team from Drayton McLane, said at a news conference. “In the long run, there can be a lot of positives to that. There’s that natural rivalry with Houston and Dallas.”
The Astros and Rangers have faced each other in the interleague “Lone Star Series” since 2001, with the Rangers holding a 37-29 advantage in those games.
Ryan said one negative of the realignment plan may be a revised schedule that means fewer home series against teams such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox that yield large attendance numbers and boost revenue.
“As far as certain premium games we like to have at our place with the Yankees and Boston, it might cut into those things,” Ryan told the Chronicle. “It’s going to bring some dynamics that we’re not for sure how those things work.”
Interleague play started in 1997, the year before the Brewers switched leagues. Also during the 1998 realignment, the Detroit Tigers switched from the AL East to the AL Central and expansion teams were added in Tampa Bay (AL) and Arizona (NL).
The Astros’ sale price was cut to $615 million from $680 million, the Associated Press said, citing an unidentified person familiar with the negotiations. Crane received a discount in exchange for moving the team to the AL, with McLane and MLB each contributing to the price cut, AP said.
“If you’re going to allow the Astros to go into the American League, they’re going to have to incur another cost with the designated hitter,” said Wayne McDonnell, an associate professor of Sports Management at New York University who created the school’s “Business of Baseball” program. “You’re going to have to pay for an additional bat in the lineup and they don’t come cheap these days. That was a primary concern.”
Crane, 57, played college baseball at the University of Central Missouri and is the chairman of Crane Worldwide Logistics, a global transportation logistics service. He founded it after leaving EGL Inc., a freight-management company he also started, in 2007. Crane had tried to buy the Astros in 2008 and lost out on the Rangers last year in a bankruptcy court joint bid with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
McLane, 75, bought the Astros for $117 million in 1993, two years after he merged his family grocery distribution business, McLane Co., with Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
--With assistance from Mason Levinson in New York. Editors: Dex McLuskey, Rob Gloster
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