After being hinted at for some time, our greatest fears are about to be realized: Major League Baseball is expanding its playoff format from eight to ten teams. Bud Selig has been talking about this idea for a couple of years, but he'd never give a firm indication as to how realistic it was. Now, however, it sounds like the real deal. Selig was quick to point out that nothing was set in stone and many details need to be settled, but barring the unforeseen, 2012 will be the first season with four rounds of playoffs.
The reason is simple: money. As everyone falls out of the postseason race, fans stop coming to the ballparks and turn off their TVs, thus causing a drop in revenue. By introducing an added playoff spot, teams will be in contention longer, drawing more fans to the game.
I will plainly state that I am not a fan of Bud Selig. He will soon be stepping down from his position as commissioner, and I will probably dance naked down Yawkey Way in celebration. He presided over baseball during the steroid era and enabled the worst aspects of free agency, including inflated salaries and the decreasing continuity of team rosters. Plus, he seems to be constantly fighting off a stroke. He couldn't look more incompetent if he drooled during press conferences.
That said, I can't say I hate the idea of a second wild card team. While I see no romance in the financial motivations of this notion, I do think it would attract more fans and be good for baseball. And if it's good for the sport, I'm all for it.
Detractors fear that it would lengthen the season, make it too easy to get into the big dance (see: the NHL) and dilute the overall purity of the game. It is true that, with the introduction of the wild card in the 1995 season, luck began to play a major role in winning world championships, but this realignment gives MLB the opportunity to set things right.
The wild card allowed a team with a lesser record into the playoff pool, but failed to put them at much of a disadvantage. They would have to face the team with the best record, but in a five-game series a team can get very lucky or very hot. Winning the WC these days is just as good as winning the division, and half of the wild card winners have made it past the first round. Maybe I shouldn't complain, given that the Red Sox wouldn't have won the 2004 World Series without making the playoffs as a wild card, but I can honestly say that the current setup isn't really fair to the division winners.
As long as we are changing the game a bit, let's stack the deck too. I would suggest a wild card round that's designed to be taxing on the teams. In order to keep the postseason from dragging on even longer than it already does, the first series needs to be very short. It should either be a best of three or perhaps even a one game playoff. The winner would then go on to face the division winner with the best record. Such a scenario would mean a WC team would have to go through four rounds in order to win a World Series and a division winner would play three. It would also mean that the WC team would also need to burn their best pitchers in the first round, coming into the Division Series in a less than ideal state. Advantage, division winner. Seems more fair to me, while still allowing the wild cards a decent chance and keeping more fans in the season for a longer time.
That takes care of the season length and the challenge of the playoffs but leaves the argument about tampering with the purity of the game. But frankly, I don't believe this to be a legitimate argument. Baseball has been besmirched at its own hands and those of its partners and affiliates since it's birth. Didn't steroids corrupt the game? What about $200 million contracts? How about interleague play? The designated hitter? Expansion? The 162-game season? Segregated baseball? The live-ball era? Gamblers? Mobsters? Corporate advertisers? Trust me, we aren't all that far from having the Star Spangled Banner presented to us by Viagra or Chevy.
Major League Baseball has constantly been fighting for a balance between tradition, evolution and bizarre mutation, between Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Disco Demolition Night. A new wild card team just doesn't seem like much or a threat next to some of those issues. It would be a welcome addition when compared to, say, a 70-homer season.
If Selig really wants to change baseball or leave a positive legacy, he needs to do something big for the game. He might claim he increased parity, financial prosperity and cracked down on PEDs, but he also looked the other way for years while players necks got wider and he seemed to be in the MLBPA's pocket. In my view, those things cancel each other out. Selig should seize the opportunity before him and make large, sweeping changes to the game. Why yes, I do have some suggestions.
1. Shorten the season
One of the ongoing complaints by baseball detractors is the length of the season. Given that I love baseball, I disagree, but I do think that when the calendar turns to November, the World Series should be over. October baseball should stay in October, and maybe shortening the season a bit is the best way to ensure it does. Restoring the 154 game season, gone since 1961, could help. So would shortening the All-Star Break and eliminating the utterly pointless Home Run Derby. Let's face it; the Derby is devoid of any competitive purpose and is essentially the baseball equivalent of watching a staged wrestling match. The season could also start a week earlier.
2. Ticket prices
If it's the American pastime, shouldn't Americans be able to afford it? This is less of an issue with the smaller market teams, but the perennial playoff contenders can average $50 per ticket. How is a working class person supposed to take their family to a ball game? If you want to sit in a suite and sip Martinis, you can pay $200, but the average price of a ticket needs to come down.
3. Contract size
If a team wants to be competitive for any length of time they need to acquire and keep great talent. How do you keep great players in your city? Offer them long, huge contracts. The problem with these contracts is the tendency they have to eventually become dead weight. A bad contract can completely hamstring a small market team, preventing financial flexibility and dragging them to the cellar of their division. The solution is a different attitude toward contracts. For one thing, contracts should not exceed a certain length. I will arbitrarily say six years. This would keep the Yankees from paying A-Rod $25 million dollars at the age of 42.
Secondly, players should never be paid for past performance, only what they will do for a team going forward. This gets a bit more complicated. One solution is for a team to negotiate two figures with a player; a minimum salary and a maximum. This way if a player is hurt or under performs, the team can only pay him so much for his services. This makes every salary incentive based and provides a team with insurance against bad contracts. If a player wants to be paid like a king he will have to play like one, and a team will always get what they pay for.
If MLB is concerned about making money, they shouldn't keep teams where they aren't wanted. It takes money to run a franchise, but if no one pays to see the team play, then they should play for a more appreciative crowd. I'm not talking about the Dodgers moving from a zealous Brooklyn fan base to LA, where they would make more money because of the sheer number of people there and lack of competition. I'm thinking of the Rays, who can't fill Tropicana Field during a pennant-winning season. The Rays deserve better and should be moved to a city that wants them. I realize this is easier said than done, as most of the viable markets are taken. But there must be somewhere out there that could draw the attendance a club needs to thrive.
5. Instant replay
Right now, instant replay can be used on debated home runs only; apparently too much replay removes the human element and slows down the game. This is true, but it also makes replay too limited to be truly useful. Instead, replay should be used like a challenge. Each team could use replay once per game for anything except the strike zone. Having only one per game keeps managers from using them frivolously. Opponents of replay say it undermines the integrity of the game, but when 50 million people can see a ball land foul on TV and an umpire thinks it was fair, doesn't it make the human element seem pointless? Give managers and umpires a tool make sure the game is called as it was played. If we had this system, Armando Galarraga would have a perfect game.
6. A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet
Not if you called them stench-blossoms. If we are going to make arguments about the integrity of the game, then the all-time leader in hits needs to be in the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose didn't cheat on the field. Every hit was achieved through talent and hard work, and his off-field crimes must be dealt with in a separate arena. The Hall of Fame is not meant to judge a mans character. At least it not according to those enshrined there. Manager John McGraw supposedly carried a piece of rope with him which was used in a lynching. Ty Cobb, the man Rose eclipsed, was a violent racist who is rumored to have killed a man. The Hall isn't just a shrine to saints. So it's time to give Charlie Hustle, who played clean and hard, a plaque. Anything less is an insult to baseball.
Some of these changes are pretty easy to implement and others aren't, but the ultimate goal is to improve the quality of the game without turning it into another game all together. No easy task, given the historic resistance to change in baseball or the inexorable influence of an owners financial interests. But the game has made changes before, many far more dramatic than adding a playoff team or anything I've suggested here. It's adapting and it would be a good idea to keep adapting.
Random note of the day: Ken Burns' "Baseball" is now available on Netflix Instant. Since Ken Burns is one of the few people capable of reminding me that America truly is a great country, I highly recommend his work.