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How to fix MLB season? Leave it be!
If baseball polled fans and asked, "What is the biggest problem with the postseason?" I seriously doubt the majority would respond, "Not enough teams."
If anything, a three-round postseason following a 162-game regular season is too long, particularly in an age of limited attention spans. Expanding the playoffs from eight to 10 teams, even if only through the addition of a one-game, wild-card play-in, would drag out the tournament even longer.
I'm not adamantly opposed to adding two teams, an idea drawing serious consideration from commissioner Bud Selig. I'm just not convinced expanded playoffs are the proper way to make the road to the World Series tougher for the wild card. And I'm far more concerned with the lack of sustained drama in recent World Series than whether one more 89-win team can reach the postseason.
The Giants' five-game triumph over the Rangers marked the eighth straight year in which the Series did not reach the maximum seven games. It is by far the longest streak since baseball first expanded the playoffs in 1969.
And you know what?
The length of the season might be part of the problem.
We've seen some lengthy and dramatic League Championship Series in recent years — the Red Sox, for example, rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit in 2007 and a three-games-to-none deficit in '04. But by the World Series, teams that get down can't seem to get back up — if they ever get started at all.
Since 2002, only two World Series have lasted even six games. Three went five games. Three ended in four-game sweeps. Perhaps it is all just cyclical; the Series went seven games three times between 1997 and 2002. Or perhaps teams become so physically and psychologically drained, they've got nothing left.
Admittedly, this is a subjective view. Players rarely say they are tired in the postseason; the adrenaline rush is that powerful. Teams like the Giants, they get on a roll and are difficult to stop.
I don’t know how baseball could make the World Series more competitive, or if such an effort even is necessary. I’m just saying that before adding two playoff teams, the sport needs to consider the big picture.
Too often, baseball wants it all: Interleague play (yes!), an unbalanced schedule (yes!), and never mind if annual scheduling inequities (no!) are the consequence. It's too much at once, like eating peanut-butter cups after peanut M&M's. But rather than sacrifice in one area to compensate for another, the sport just keeps piling on.
With expanded playoffs, it could be more of the same.
In fairness, the wisdom of some of Selig's earlier innovations was not immediately clear. The wild card, after an initial torrent of criticism, has proved to be a tremendous success, financially, competitively and in popularity. So another playoff expansion would be far less controversial, if controversial at all.
Still, there is virtually no talk of reducing the regular season from 162 to 154 games; heaven forbid that the owners give up revenue from four home dates, and that the players take corresponding paycuts.
There also is virtually no talk of reducing the length of spring training, a move that would enable baseball to start the season earlier but antagonize all of those towns in Florida and Arizona that bank on spring-training revenue.
What, then, will Selig do, petition Congress to add days to October?
A three-game wild-card playoff would be impractical for the same reason that a seven-game Division Series is impractical — it would chew up too much of the calendar.
A one-game wild-card playoff, followed by the start of the Division Series the next day, would work better — as long as, ahem, other one-game playoffs weren't necessary to decide regular-season races first.
I'm all for putting the wild cards at a disadvantage and creating greater incentives for clubs to finish first. But before expanding the playoffs, I'd handicap the wild-card teams in a different way, allowing them to play only one of five potential games — Game 3 — at home.
I'm aware of the numbers — teams with home-field advantage have won only half the Division Series and LCS rounds since baseball adopted its present playoff scheduling format in 1998. But four of five at home? That has to be an advantage, psychologically if nothing else.
Expanding the playoffs would make more sense if clubs failing to make the postseason under the current format were getting shafted. But the additional qualifiers this season would have been an injury-depleted 89-win Red Sox team and a plucky but undermanned 90-win Padres team. Neither was missed.
True, the Yankees-Rays battle in the AL East ultimately mattered only for seeding, and a Yankees-Red Sox one-game playoff for the final playoff berth, with each team burning its best pitcher, would have been electric.
Then again, the frenetic three-team showdown between the Padres, Giants and Braves for two spots would have produced little or no drama under an expanded format.
Some years, certain pennant races would be better. Some years, certain ones would be worse. We are not talking about a slam-dunk benefit.
Proponents of expanded playoffs talk about the sanctity of finishing first. Yet, they ignore the possibility that an additional wild card would create an opening for a third-place club, albeit a good one.
Selig, a consensus builder, does not act on impulse; when he says that he is considering expanded playoffs, it means he already has given the issue considerable thought. I'm just not sure that adding two more teams is a solution, or even addressing the right problem.
My fear is that the World Series is becoming an annual exercise in tedium. The end of the playoffs are much more important than the start.
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