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November 4, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Four and No More

by Christina Kahrl

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It was a glorious World Series to cap a glorious October, and detracting from it in any way would be difficult. Sadly, baseball managed it.

With his usual knack, Bud Selig could not help but find a way to leave something floating in the punch bowl where the postseason was concerned, because on Sunday, with the 2010 campaign cresting with a matchup reflecting a decade almost as glorious as the '80s as evidence of a dynamic, healthy competitive balance, Selig couldn't help but fidget. He could not help but suggest that maybe what baseball needed was two more playoff teams.

There's something appropriate that Selig spoke diffidently about his “pragmatic” appetite for extra post-season action on Halloween. Where this past postseason was concerned, while we all got to overindulge from an overstuffed October goodie bag, there's always that one kid who couldn't settle on having just that one last Milk Dud. To his shame, Selig was the one glutton who 'fessed up to wanting more.

So the Commissioner talks of being pragmatic about this, which is just as well, because the logistical challenges to adding two more wild-card teams for one-game play-ins or best-of-three miniseries are considerable. Does it really make sense to have six teams standing around, while two wild-card clubs play their parts in the near-total trivialization of the regular season?

Selig might repeatedly and plaintively mention his horror for November baseball, but he's the man who created its near-unavoidability, certainly as long as post-season scheduling is tethered to network preference.* Inviting the addition of another short series or a scripted one-game death match hardly helps MLB avoid this ever-present threat. Admittedly, other antidotes to a November dogpile are being kicked around, as Selig commented at the All-Star Game: moving Opening Day (or Night) forward from Sunday/Monday (the 2011 season will start on Thursday/Friday), as well as deleting the odd day off or two during the LDS round.

That's all just embroidery, because the 162-game schedule is considered safe, and it isn't like the new generation of Lordlings of the Realm operating franchises these days are going to dip into their in-pocket profits from television, radio, ticket sales, and ancillary revenue streams by old-school scheduling or even day/night doubleheaders. The sixth-month slog might scoot up by a weekend, but it's still the unavoidably huge commitment, the game's greatest logistical feat as well as its handicap, simultaneously making a ballgame a ubiquitous pleasure while reducing it to seasonal wallpaper on a few too many local sports pages and national sports sites. Adding pre-scheduled baseball-as-bloodsport wild-card miniseries doesn't resolve that, while simply adding some new scheduling difficulties when it comes to avoiding trophy-hoisting in November.

Perhaps the man's disappointment is a product of our first play-in-free October since 2006. That was the last time we didn't need a one-game playoff to determine the identity of the eighth team on the slate, with the NL West doing the honors in 2007, and the AL Central generating sudden-death entertainment in 2008 and 2009. But as with so much else about the game, I'd argue that such pleasures are best savored when they occur by accident. As is, we got a contact high for this particular thrill's possibilities from the Braves, Padres, and Giants, right up until the regular season's last day.

That it didn't happen, that we did not get the Padres and Giants stepping out into the street for one last duel, or that we didn't get a three-way tie that left us having to determine the identities of both the NL West winner and the NL's wild-card club, is not an oversight to be corrected. Instead, it's an endorsement of how healthy what BP alum Keith Woolner referred to as the game's competitive ecology is.

Beyond the NL's near-miss for procuring this season's one-game playoff, the bunching up of today's contenders reflects an increasingly desperate scramble. In the American League, setting aside division alignments for the moment, the argument over who might have been the fourth-best team in the circuit had three teams—the Rangers, Red Sox, and White Sox—separated by just two games. The heavies from the AL East didn't just get beaten twice over by the upstart Rangers, they very nearly lost home-field advantage to the Twins. Look at third-order Adjusted Standings (here), and you find the AL tightly grouped, with a half-dozen clubs knocking around in a range of 88-92 wins.

Now, you can say that thick pack of possibles makes the actual outcome of which four clubs finish in the postseason too much of a toss-up, especially when you have an unbalanced schedule and the conceits of interleague action helping determine who lives and who golfs at season's end. And I'd collaboratively quibble over these and other complaints. But scheduling a play-in series strikes me as that last bit of bastardization too far.

Perhaps you cannot blame the man overmuch. As a matter of personal destiny, some by design, but by accident as well, Selig has had to preside over some of the most humiliating moments in the history of the sport. There are the matters of his guilt for 1994 as one of the leading architects of the first season sans World Series since 1904, or the embarrassment of an All-Star Game sloppily managed into a unresolvable tie, or his testimony on Capitol Hill that should place him with Rafael Palmeiro among the list of targets should already officious Congressmen decide to take up again their sense of slow-news-cycle outrage.

Where other sports seem to armor themselves with one Teflon-coated corporate dullard or another, for better and for worse, Selig is transparently a fan of the game, and not merely his own initiatives. But he's also no simple traditionalist, since he has presided over and achieved more change than any Czar has or perhaps ever will. In this, he has had the advantage of being of the game as well as above it. Maybe, to achieve change within the industry, its idiosyncrasies required an equally idiosyncratic, in-bred solution. Dropping the pantomime of the past and dispensing with the dopey naivete that the Commissioner was some impartial elective monarch died a necessary death after the brief tyranny of Fay Vincent, baseball absolutism's last fantasy manager.

Instead, we have Selig, mogul and fan, a figure out of history nevertheless willing to thumb his nose at it and tinker. That's admirable in some ways. After all, who among us doesn't have his or her own agenda "were I Czar/ina for a day.” My own two cents, worth even less than the zinc wasted to mint them, is that I'd want us to go back to the two-division alignment for both leagues, and accept two wild-card clubs, which might in the worst-case scenarios help limit any one season's October slate to just one geographical accident per league. Admittedly, there's some lingering nostalgia for the alignment of my youth, but then again, I find the lopsided divisional alignments that give us the NL Central's six-pack and the AL West's short stack a bit ridiculous. However, I'm not so far gone as a hard-line historicist to insist we come down from four playoff teams per league back down to two.

But if Selig's willingness to break with history has its highlights and its uses, it also risks teetering into gimmickry, as it has with the “meaningful” All-Star Game. Here's hoping he doesn't go too far looking for some new, scheduled gewgaw. Let's take our one-game playoffs where and when we get them, delight in the game's stronger competitive dynamic while hoping the mechanisms that help achieve it either remain in place or get additional aid, and stick with four invitations to the dance per league.

* And effectively that alone, because of one of the great triumphs of Czar Bud the Builder, since one of the basic benefits of the baseball-only facilities almost every franchise enjoys today is there's little need to worry about anyone else's uses for the venues.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Bud Selig,  A's,  Scheduling,  The Who,  Divisional Alignment

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