Memo to Selig: Leave the playoffs alone
Almost all of the power brokers at Major League Baseball, an entity that could use a visit to the ophthalmologist for its short-sightedness, burst with pleasure at the idea of expanding the game’s postseason. Publicly, they tout the excitement of another wild-card team in each league, of two more teams’ fans getting to experience the playoffs. Their motivations, of course, aren’t nearly so altruistic.
The original wild card came about to help owners offset $280 million in damages for colluding against the players in the mid-1980s, and the newest version – still in its planning stages but almost certain to be implemented by 2012 – is no different in its motivations. Baseball’s growth in the Bud Selig era is defined by dollar signs, and with MLB understanding that there are only so many revenue streams even the most well-run business can tap, the sport is drilling its ANWR.
Since Selig floated the idea of expanded playoffs last year, I’ve asked dozens of people in the game – players, executives, owners – what they think about it. And almost unanimously, they answer: Why not match up the wild-card teams in a three-game series? After a while, I began to wonder whether I was the crazy one: worried about not just the doomsday scenario that can unfold with five playoff teams in each league – and I’ll get to that – but the continued neutering of the regular season that started with realignment and the wild card.
Then it occurred to me: Of course people in the game want another playoff team. It’s going to make them filthy stinking rich instead of just filthy rich. More money from TV and attendance makes for fatter pockets on owners. And fatter pockets on owners trickle down to the players. It was only natural the general managers came out overwhelmingly in favor of expanded playoffs following their meetings in mid-November.
“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 executive said. “I make the playoffs, I keep my job.”
I laughed. He was right. It’s impossible to argue against self-preservation, just as it’s a fool’s errand to castigate a wealthy man for his greed. The first trait is inherent, the latter a birthright of baseball ownership, and rather than make the monetary argument, I appealed to one owner that it could take away from the overall experience of his paying customers.
“Really?” he said. “If you’re a fan, you don’t want your team to have a 6 or 7 percent better chance at making the playoffs? You don’t want to see games in October in your home stadium? You don’t want that?”
He, too, was right. And still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something about expanding the playoffs is wrong.
So rather than focus on the downside of this idea, I started considering other areas where baseball could improve. Selig could institute instant replay tomorrow if he wanted it, and the game almost instantaneously would become fairer and, by extension, better. He could meet with executives at Fox and ESPN and say that for the game’s long-term health, the networks need to focus less on the Yankees and Red Sox and more on growing the fan base among small and medium markets so a World Series like this year’s doesn’t find itself eminently skippable.
Both of those ideas are more important to baseball’s future – to its credibility among the first generation growing up with football as the unquestioned national pastime.
And neither brings in a single cent today, so they’re non-starters.
Because MLB has experienced such phenomenal financial growth during Selig’s reign, one owner said, “our ideas aren’t as much what’s right for the sport as what’s right for revenues. My team is worth a lot more than it was when I bought it. It’s sort of like blood money, though.” Never did that owner feel guilty enough to sell, however, and it was the pressure of ownership that compelled Selig to feel out playoff expansion in the first place, no matter how icky it felt.
When Selig implemented the wild card in 1995, he lost credibility on the sanctity of the regular season, so he is now in no position to stop another wild card’s momentum, even if he isn’t totally on board. Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf hasn’t publicly touted the new wild cards, and rare is the issue on which he and Selig disagree.
Perhaps Selig sees an expanded postseason for the false idol it is. Already MLB takes for granted its regular season, an undulating six-month ride that the original wild card neutered but didn’t kill. To argue that the second wild card will bring a more thrilling September is to ignore potential scenarios.
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?
There are other problems. The owners don’t want to shorten the regular season, so the November baseball Selig swore off starting next year will almost surely return in 2012. The best teams would get a potentially long layoff before playing their first series, which, whether you believe in momentum or not, is nonetheless a silly way to start the postseason.
“Two teams that couldn’t even win their divisions … next on TBS!”
Nobody provided a better analysis on the downside of the new wild cards than writer Joe Sheehan, who astutely said that any plan that could punish good teams and incentivize success in bad divisions is not one worth dreaming, let alone discussing. 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.
Yet here is Selig, preparing this week to brief his hand-picked 14-person panel tasked with improving the game. At the winter meetings in Orlando, Selig will talk with the group, mostly comprised of executives and former players, about more playoffs. It’s distressing. They could focus on so many other issues, so many more pressing ones.
MLB’s postseason isn’t screaming for more teams. Baseball doesn’t need to be the NFL and certainly not the NBA, with its interminable playoff format. It 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.