Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Interleague play, wild card playoffs must go

During these last several years of interleague play and wild card playoffs, Major League Baseball has profited as never before. But they still present problems. The commissioner's office has papered over some of them. But it would be better if interleague play and wild card playoffs went away completely.

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles


When interleague play began in 1997, the voices from this corner spoke in complete opposition. Baseball is trading off its soul, we said. Baseball is selling its mystique, which it can never regain.

Such remarks must have sounded crotchety. The game is its own soul and mystique, beyond harm from wise men or fools. Interleague play, home run proliferation and wild card playoffs can't kill baseball's soul. But they can't help, we said, and they might even hurt. If they don't kill the game's soul, they will somehow diminish the game by wrecking decades-old standards of performance and competition. And we were right for lamenting our loss of those unities. But we were wrong for thinking it was feasible to preserve them.

Recall the situation about 1997. Fans were not coming back after the club owners forced a players' strike that cancelled the 1994 World Series. Well, we said, of course people are ticked off. Let them be ticked off for two or three years. The game will bring them back. Let the game take care of it.

But for whatever reasons -- bats, balls, dilution of pitching, smaller new parks, steroids -- home runs already were flying in numbers that sold tickets while makinhg the game uncomfortable to watch. And Commissioner Bud Selig long wanted interleague play. Delayed by the strike, wild card playoffs began in 1995. So, all of that hit at once, all these gimmicks tearing into the game's venerated unities, which had directly brought the game's present and history together for older fans.

But even we understand, by now, that the unities were an illusion, by then. The game's business increasingly nationalized with big network television contracts, later to go with pooled Internet and cable revenues. Meanwhile, local franchises are increasingly sophisticated at monetizing their markets. As all the business could be conducted by the commissioner's office and the clubs, the National and American Leagues ceased to have competing interests beyond winning the All-Star Game or the World Series. In the interests of uniformity and efficiency, the commissioner folded the two leagues into his office in 1999. We no longer have autonomous presidents or umpires for the American or National Leagues.

Thus, the American and National Leagues were on their way out when interleague play began and they no longer exist except as branding names owned by Major League Baseball. So, there really is no interleague play because there are no separate leagues, in any real sense, to play against each other. The reductio ad absurdum came with the 2002 All-Star Game played to an 11-inning tie in Milwaukee, Bud Selig's town. The insiders, the participants, didn't even care to resolve the All-Star Game. There was no Chub Feeney walking into the clubhouse and giving a speech for the good old National League. The commissioner has since papered over the difficulty with an incentive, giving the winning league home field in the World Series.

But the World Series began to feel more detached from the regular season as so many teams succeeded in the former without first succeeding in the latter. Wild cards run wild through an October postseason tournament that is little like the regular season. Out of 34 possible pennants since the start of expanded playoffs, wild cards have won nine, leaving the six division winners to average about four each. Wild cards have won five of 17 World Series, leaving the division winners to average two each. The wild cards win their fair share because they enter the tournament as equals, although they really aren’t.

The World Series championship has taken on a fluky quality, as if it were a suitable separate entertainment, but not sufficiently determined by the rigors of the regular season. If you could just back your old, shallow club into a wild card, you're an outlier seizing a crazy opportunity without bearing the burden of winning a regular season championship. And you're winning as much as they are.

The postseason schedule, with its day of rest for every two days of games, plays to the advantage of the weakest overall team, since that team is weakest very likely because it didn't have the depth to capture a division in 162 games. The manager of the weakest team benefits most from not exposing his weaknesses. Now, he can keep his better relievers sharp and keep his worst relievers out of the game. Now, his 36-year-old right fielder doesn't need two days off every week, which takes playing time away from his protégé who is moving too slow.

Thus, the postseason schedule, alone, makes the weaker teams stronger. But we're not testing the best team over the long haul, anyway. We're only testing the moment, the right now. By so often capturing the moment, the wild cards have exposed the moment's lack of connection to the regular season, because the wild cards were absent in that moment. Not even needing to buy a ticket to enter the tournament, the wild card has taken the World Series away from the regular season.

New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman admitted to considering the strategic advantages of entering as a wild card with a division title on the line. Winning a regular season championship became secondary to gearing up for the playoffs. We could put it on the Yankees’ unique commitment to winning the World Series, but other teams – Florida 1997 and 2003, the Angels and San Francisco in 2002 – demonstrate it just as well. There are others. Red Sox 2004?

How can we forget the Cardinals 2011? The Cardinals played 18 playoff games in 28 days. Powerful as the players union is, the basic agreement only requires one day off for every three weeks during the regular season. The playoffs are a whole new ball game, as it might be said. And no one understood better than Tony LaRussa how to demiurge a whole new team – a much better team – for that whole new game.

Baseball has a very long regular season with a lot of ticket and marketing inventory. It’s the only chance most franchises have to make money. Baseball needs that regular season to matter a bit more, to have a little more to say about who wins the World Series. It would be good for business. Maybe baseball can accomplish that much and max out the postseason revenues with the new system of two wild cards in a one-game playoff to enter the tournament.

Now, at least, the successful wild card will have to pass some kind of initiation, bear some kind of handicap by burning a starter, jump through some kind of hoop. Win that game and you're the road team in a best-of-five against the best record in your league, and you can only use your ace once. We shouldn't expect to see a wild card win the World Series for quite a while.

Happily, wild card playoffs and interleague play can be eliminated by the application of one exciting idea that also will address Selig's absolutely correct intuitions about regionalism that have driven his various re-alignment schemes. The details will follow soon. It should suffice right now to say that wild card playoffs have produced flukes and interleague play generates too many games that are utterly meaningless. We don't need them.

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