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Starkey: Pirates in American League? Yes!

| Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pirates president Frank Coonelly is lobbying Major League Baseball to move his team from the National League Central Division to the NL East.

It's a great idea, one I'd fully support, even if the competition might be stiffer.

Coonelly points out that Pittsburgh is an eastern city, not a midwestern one, and in the NL East his team could rekindle old sparks with the Phillies and Mets. Both are box-office hits at PNC Park. The Washington Nationals would be, too, once Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg join forces.

More importantly, the Pirates finally would escape the drab NL Central, where they never seemed to fit upon joining the newly formed division in 1994. Of course, they never won, either, which prohibited any meaningful rivalries.

In any case, Coonelly's ready to go.

"I have made some points to (MLB)," he said. "I wouldn't over-read it to suggest I'm getting traction yet. While the (collective bargaining agreement) discussions are ongoing, I'm letting them know where we stand."

Great for Pirates fans that Coonelly is proactively seeking a move. Here is a more radical proposal: the American League.

Yes, the Pirates in the American League.

Heretical, I know, but hear me out.

Baseball's CBA expires in December. Change is afoot. Serious talk of realignment and expanding the playoff field has taken root.

It's possible at least one NL team will switch leagues, as baseball currently operates with a 16-team NL and a 14-team AL. The Astros are a logical candidate, because they could bolster the four-team AL West and lock horns with the Texas Rangers.

But the Astros weren't the first choice in a recent Boston Globe story. The Pirates were, with the following rationale ...

They haven't had a winning season since 1992. Great time to change leagues and start anew. Take them out of the six-team NL Central and place them in the AL Central. Then move Kansas City to the AL West.

Why didn't I think of that?

Fresh start. New league. Instant rivalry. That would be with the Cleveland Indians, obviously, but the Detroit Tigers are a natural, too. If I'm not mistaken, the Pittsburgh and Detroit fan bases are fairly well-acquainted.

The Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox would be the other teams — admittedly not a great geographical fit — unless MLB got real crazy and adopted an idea such as the one ex-Reds GM Jim Bowden set forth on

Bowden carved the league into two 15-team conferences and accentuated regional matchups. He put the Pirates in the AL Central with Minnesota, Cincinnati, Detroit and Cleveland.

Coonelly, understandably, is not a fan of a move to the AL.

"We like it in the National League," he said. "We have a long history there."

Long as in 125 years. That kind of tenure means something. But people adapt. The first time the Indians come to town, nobody would be pining for an Astros series.

Besides, "tradition" could be threatened on many fronts in realignment. Playoff teams could be added. Divisions could disappear. Heck, if the only change is moving to 15-team leagues, you'd see interleague games every night in order to balance the schedule — and therefore plenty of designated-hitter nights for NL teams.

On the other hand, maybe the NL keeps all 16 teams and the Pirates are simply added to the NL East. As Coonelly says, "If one National League division has to have six teams, nothing says it has to be the Central."

Maybe the Atlanta Braves, once a member of the NL West, swap divisions with the Pirates, though it's hard to imagine the Braves giving up rivalries with the Phillies and Mets.

At the very least, if they are forced to stay put, the Pirates seek a more balanced schedule.

"The current format doesn't work, from our perspective, because it's so heavily unbalanced," Coonelly said. "You play teams in your division 18 times, teams outside 6-7 times."

I like Coonelly's thinking. But if commissioner Bud Selig is handing out one golden ticket to switch leagues, and I'm the Pirates, I'm cutting to the front of the line. I want a new start and a chance to improve my lot in life.

It's the American Dream.

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