‘Natural’ rivals? MLB needs help with new branding
With MLB’s Opening Day less than two months away, fans are beginning to peruse a schedule that looks … different. The league is implementing a new “balanced” slate this season, shaving down the robust haul of division matchups to allow each team to play all 29 other clubs every year.
In addition to the entertainment perks — every fan will have the chance to watch, say, Shohei Ohtani, even if they watch only their team’s local broadcasts — the changes will create a more level playing field in postseason hunts that now involve more cross-division competition thanks to the additional wild card added last season.
In the new format, your team will face each division rival 14 times, each non-division team in their league six times and every interleague team three times — except for one special interleague “natural rival.” Each of these rivalries will get home-and-home two-game sets every year, so four games specially aligned to add emphasis by playing at both parks annually. While I don’t envy the difficult job of MLB’s schedule-makers, I do have one request: Let’s make it an odd number of meetings per year so there’s always a winner.
Anyway, this isn’t exactly new — the natural rival concept has existed for a while — but it’s highlighted and codified by this switch. To really appreciate these so-called rivalries, we need to a) remember what they are and b) amp up the intrigue around some of the less, uh, logical ones.
Some of them — Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox — have obvious history and standing cultural significance. Others (lookin’ at you, D-backs-Rangers) don’t. Even some of the classics, though, could use some pageantry, some spruced-up atmospherics. College football, a sport built around natural rivalries, does this better than anyone. And while baseball likely couldn’t ever replicate the geographic mingling of allegiances that adds jet fuel to those matchups, we can do one thing: We can adorn our special games with special names.
So let’s go through these matchups to critique or create their rivalry monikers. First up, the actually natural, already existing classics:
Really, the platonic ideal of a rivalry name. It’s distinct to its city, alliterative and evocative of the crowded, up-close experience of New York baseball fandom. No notes.
Giants vs. A’s: Bay Bridge Series
Cardinals-Royals: I-70 Series
Official policy: If a rivalry name has been burned into baseball history by a modern World Series meeting, it can’t be changed. The Giants and A’s famously met in the earthquake-interrupted 1989 Fall Classic, while the Cardinals and Royals played in the 1985 World Series that is remembered for umpire Don Denkinger’s crucial missed call. These are staying.
Cubs vs. White Sox:
Crosstown Classic Red Line Series
Keyword from the above pair: modern. The Cubs and White Sox squared off in the 1906 World Series, but the Crosstown Classic was really a product of interleague play almost a century later.
OK, so Chicago’s clash doesn’t lack spice. The fans — and sometimes the players — get into this one whole-heartedly. Catchers A.J. Pierzynski and Michael Barrett provided an enduring image for the whole endeavor back in 2006.
Which is why the bland “Crosstown Classic” name could use an update. Of all the intracity rivalries, Chicago might have the sharpest transportation-related opportunity of them all! The “L” trains that run by each park are both on the Red Line, and what better way to describe choosing a side — North Side or South Side — in that town?
Nationals-Orioles: Battle of the Beltway
Honestly, sure. It’s not so much classic as it is accurately dull. Befitting the bland non-rivalry of two teams whose biggest battle — the MASN kerfuffle — rages in boardrooms and courtrooms, this series can remain named after roads that go in circles.
Dodgers vs. Angels: Freeway Series
Is the idea of Californians talking about traffic a stereotype? Yes. Is it rooted in reality? Also yes. Much like Subway Series, this one makes too much sense to change. If you really wanted a backup, new for new’s sake, the Scioscia Series could work in honor of the Dodgers player-turned-Angels manager, but that would pale in comparison to the post-2023 possibility of the Shohei Showdown.
Next up, let’s look at real geographic matchups that lack a certain je ne sais quoi:
Reds vs. Guardians:
The Ohio Cup The Horseshoe Series
I’m not sure there’s a more boring name than the Ohio Cup. Can you imagine if we called it the New York Cup? However, I understand the quandary. There isn’t a lot to work with here. So let’s revive an old tradition of playing the game between the two cities — in Columbus — but do it in a way that Ohio sports fans will actually notice: Put all the games in Ohio State’s — ahem, The Ohio State University’s — football stadium. Adjust to weird dimensions. Profit.
Citrus Series Yard Sale Series
Citrus Series has never caught on, and Goodwill Games was already taken. Still, the pursuit of secondhand, another-team’s-trash type talent really hits the vibe of MLB’s stingy Florida teams. One club, the Rays, has proven wildly successful at accumulating misfit toys and real-deal prospects by running a constantly churning, anonymous-looking machine of a 40-man roster. And the Marlins won two World Series, in their heyday, by selling everything that wasn’t nailed down and sifting through their proceeds for gold. Recently, their efforts have been … less successful. Overall, the vibe of this series is thoroughly yard sale: Janky and poorly labeled but occasionally harboring serious treasure.
Border Battle Slab of Bacon Series
The annual clash between the Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Golden Gophers — rivals in the college football world — has spawned two excellent rivalry trophies. Right now, the teams play for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
That’s objectively fun. But it’s actually the second iteration of a rivalry “trophy” for this game. From 1930 to 1943, Wisconsin and Minnesota fought over the Slab of Bacon before it was lost (and later found in Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium more than 50 years later).
Upper Midwesterners seem to save their resentment for football. Despite the college rivalry and an intense hatred between fans of the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, there isn’t much animosity in the Brewers-Twins matchup. But let’s lean into the quirks of a bizarre trophy and the universal appeal of bacon. Maybe they can put some nice ribbons around the slab in baseball-lace red.
Finally, it’s time for the real challenge — the matchups of necessity that don’t have existing names:
Phillies-Blue Jays: Halladay Series
Here’s the obvious one first: The Phillies and Blue Jays share a franchise icon in the late ace Roy Halladay. Remembering “Doc” with an annual series and perhaps trophy in his honor seems like an easy call.
Braves-Red Sox: The Series To Be Named Later
Asked in 2007 if there is a “rivalry” between the Braves and Red Sox during another MLB scheduling push of this matchup, Chipper Jones said there was “none whatsoever.” And yeah, agreed. There hasn’t been much steam added in the years since, either, despite immense success for both teams.
Their intersection in baseball lore came back in the early 1900s, when both teams briefly occupied Boston. If anything, it’s striking how infrequently these franchises have collided despite their long, overstuffed histories. But it seems inevitable that these two proud teams will run into each other at some point, whether that’s in a World Series, in a fight over a major free agent or in a huge trade. So let’s lean into the high expectations and recognize that the best of this rivalry is yet to come.
Rockies-Astros: Globetrotter Games
The Rockies lack a true natural rival, and the Astros lost their best option for this particular purpose by joining the American League (home of the Texas Rangers) in 2013. Thus, we wind up with this marriage of inconvenience.
On first blush, the team names bubble up from the inspiration of exploration — Colorado’s tallest peaks, Houston’s quest for outer space. Yet outside of the branding, there’s no real way to see around the contrasts of these clubs. The Astros are on the cutting edge of baseball thinking and technology (sometimes too far on the edge), while the Rockies seem to have lost contact with the rest of the league sometime in the mid-2000s.
This is a matchup of teams in the outer reaches of the universe, yes. But it’s also a matchup of a team destined to win, a la the Harlem Globetrotters, and a team of foils who might or might not realize what they signed up for.
Wanna kill some time? Let’s play a game. Here are some quotes from Rockies owner Dick Montfort over the past 13 years. Guess the year in which he said these things…
— Nick Groke (@nickgroke) January 30, 2023
Pirates-Tigers: Analog Cup
Some of the best qualities of these teams — their adherence to classic, old-school aesthetics — dovetail in an unfortunate way with some of the most lamentable qualities. Those being, in short, that the clubs’ best days occurred before digital media took over the world. Newspaper box scores, radio broadcasts and sepia-toned TV reels contain the most glorious memories for Pittsburgh and Detroit baseball fans. Some day, they will turn back the dial — or phone into the future. But until then, the winner of this season series can lord over a gilded landline telephone.
Padres-Mariners: Deal or No Deal Challenge
This, by contrast, is a matchup of the moment. Freewheeling executives A.J. Preller and Jerry Dipoto have fashioned the Padres and Mariners into high-flying, fun and wildly unpredictable teams. They have done that, predominantly, by transacting at prodigious rates, including with each other: In 2020, they pulled off a swap involving Austin Nola, Ty France, Andres Munoz and several others that has proven momentous for both teams.
D-backs-Rangers: The Leather Series
We’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel now. History- and intrigue-wise, this wouldn’t crack the top three matchups between teams once managed by Buck Showalter. Even in the recent headline-grabbing sabotage saga at the Dallas Zoo, snakes were one of the few types of animals not involved.
Instead, we must look to the team names for inspiration. Snakes vs. cowboys (or Texas rangers) is actually a pretty solid trope, a man vs. nature plot common in classic Western books and films. So let’s keep it simple. The only thing between a venomous snake and a ranger’s ankle? The leather of his boots.
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Zach Crizer on Twitter @zcrizer.
Source: Yahoo Sports