I wonder if anyone has taken an objective look at the Major League Baseball playoffs and said that the October dance needs more teams because that’s what we’re about to get. If baseball’s latest proposal goes through, each league will send an additional team to the playoffs, and the two Wild Card clubs will play a best-of-three series in advance of the LDS rounds.
For many reasons, I don’t find this a particularly appealing idea. For one, as I wrote in early November, the playoffs are simply too long. To maximize national TV exposure, baseball has added more days off than are necessary in October, and the result is a schedule that’s simply too slow after a 162-game regular season. Adding another round and another three or four days to the calendar will slow things to a crawl.
But that’s the lesser argument. The more compelling critique of this plan involves the fact that it cheapens the regular season. Jeff Passan, in a withering takedown of the plan, summarizes:
Imagine the following: The Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees enter the season’s last week with 95 wins apiece. The Boston Red Sox, with 90 wins, hold a comfortable lead for the second wild-card spot, and Minnesota and Texas, each with 90 wins, have wrapped up their divisions. Suddenly, the only teams playing for something in that last week are the two best in the league. They will do everything they can to avoid a wild-card spot despite having clinched playoff spots already. Empty their rotations. Play full bore. A five-game series in the first round is already a crapshoot. A three-game series would be a complete toss-up.
Let’s say the Yankees win the AL East. The Rays exhausted their pitching staff while a team they were five games better than during the regular season – the six-month-long, 162-game regular season – was able to set up its rotation and rest its players. And that’s fair how, exactly?
Passan’s piece highlights the fiscal drive behind the added Wild Card round. Owners figure they can cash on if more teams are in the playoffs because they’ll get more money from the gate receipts, more money from TV and more money from merchandise sales. The owners’ pockets are happy, and when the owners’ pockets are happy, the players are usually well compensated too.
“As a member of a club, you’re talking about extra chances to get into the playoffs and have your season look like a success,” one MLB source said to Passan. “I make the playoffs, I keep my job.”
Passan sees this plan as the further lessening of the regular season. If one third of all baseball teams are in the playoffs, the rat race matters less and less. While Selig and Co. could opt to implement instant replay or ask Fox and ESPN executives to tone down the Boston/New York overkill and expand the overall appeal of the game, they’re going instead for the quick fix.
“Whether it’s the three-game series favored by the majority or the one-game-and-out playoff espoused by some writers – another potential insult to whatever remains of the regular season – the wrongs of expanding baseball’s postseason far outweigh the rights,” Passan wrote. Baseball, he says, “needs to stay true to itself, or at least whatever of itself remains, whatever part hasn’t been cannibalized by a god that’s colored green.”