Not even Bud Selig, baseball's biggest booster, can spin this September into something compelling. The division races have dissolved. The jockeying for home field in the playoffs is dull. All of the leftover buzz surrounds individual awards, not team races. It isn't what the commissioner envisioned six weeks ago as the All-Star break ended.
"I told a friend of mine over the weekend you can't orchestrate races," he said. "I thought we'd have great ones. It really shaped up great all summer. And then …"
Poof. Everyone, even the biggest opponents of playoff expansion, was left wondering what this September would look like with the Selig-proposed second wild card. A half-game separating Tampa Bay and Los Angeles in the American League. A tie between San Francisco and St. Louis in the National League. Real, honest-to-goodness races.
Ones that Selig still wants for 2012 despite serious obstacles.
"I hope to have it next year," Selig told Yahoo! Sports. "It will depend on a whole series of things. The holdup is working out all the details."
Those details, major league sources said, remain cloudy enough that the chances of expanded playoffs next season are iffy at best.
While collective-bargaining talks continue to progress cordially, little movement has been made on the five-team playoffs because realignment remains unresolved. The resolution of one issue, as ESPN.com reported, runs hand in hand with the other.
One positive step in recent weeks, sources said, is the softening of incoming Houston Astros owner Jim Crane on moving his team to the AL West under a realignment plan that would even out the leagues at 15 teams apiece and allow six five-team divisions. Crane's reticence – playing three division foes in the Pacific time zone – is allayed by the Texas Rangers' ability to lock in a huge TV deal in spite of their AL West affiliation as well as the possibility of negotiations offering a more balanced schedule.
Realignment is among the significant issues at the bargaining tables, sources said. Others include:
• MLB's hard-slotting plan, which would severely restrict draft bonuses and is vehemently opposed by the players' association.
• The worldwide draft, a logistical nightmare and minuscule possibility in this contract.
• The possibility of HGH blood testing at the major league level, which received a significant boost when minor leaguer Mike Jacobs(notes) tested positive in August.
• The revision of arbitration rules to keep teams from burying top prospects in the minor leagues in order to keep them from reaching arbitration a year early.
• An overhaul of baseball's free-agent-compensation system, which the richest and smartest teams parlay into an annual draft advantage.
• The union's push for an adjustment in revenue-sharing and luxury-tax rates to promote greater spending in a free-agent market that needs artificial assistance because of its general inefficiency.
• The second wild card and its possible format.
Hard slotting and the wild card are two of Selig's pet projects in this negotiation, which he insisted will be his last, as "even though a lot of people don't believe it, I'm done Dec. 31 of next year," when his contract is up. The second wild card, Selig said, is endorsed by almost everyone in the game, which makes sense considering playoff appearances stabilize the employment of general managers and managers while giving players an opportunity to earn beaucoup bucks with a great October.
Still, one of baseball's great features is its (relatively) pure playoff format. Pandora already let one wild card out. The second, Selig said, does at times trouble him: "I agonize over it."
He supports it nonetheless, even as the bargaining room teems with ideas and differences of opinion and questions as to how to format it. A one-game, do-or-die playoff? A three-game series? What's fair? What's realistic? What's right? He doesn't know, and nobody in the room seems to, either, which, for now, leaves it in limbo and delayed, perhaps, until 2013.
And yet if Selig wants it, and this really is his last CBA, he will get it because it doesn't fundamentally clash with the union's philosophy the way slotting does, and commissioners on their way out – like former NFL boss Paul Tagliabue – want to leave on a positive and with one final mark on their legacies. It will cost something. Things of great import always do.
Maybe it'll save baseball from another September like this. Granted, there are only three weeks left until what could be one of the best Octobers in memory, one filled with great teams, great storylines, great possibilities.
"If everything holds, a great October is shaping up," Selig said. "I'm not unhappy. Sure, you hope the division races are better. But this has a chance to be historic."
If only he had a fast-forward button.
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- Bud Selig