Why the Baseball Playoffs Need to End Sooner

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In a world in which seemingly every anniversary is overhyped, one such sports occasion hasn't received all that much attention. Fifty years ago this week, the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the New York Yankees on a walk-off home run to win the seventh game 10-9, in one of the most memorable endings to one of the most memorable World Series ever.

It's pretty clear why baseball itself hasn't made much of a fuss over the occasion. That Bill Mazeroski home run ended the season at about the time when baseball seasons are supposed to end—namely now. In contrast, this year we haven't even begun the final round of playoff series yet, which will lead to a World Series likely to end in November.

This is a problem unique to baseball, whose postseason is increasingly almost an afterthought. While NFL broadcasts head for new records, baseball is searching for an audience at the time of year it should be doing best. As financial pressures increase, the temptation of every sport is to lengthen the season and the playoffs—and baseball is now talking of adding more teams to the postseason mix by having some play-in wild card games. But though it may seem odd to play ice hockey in June or pro football in February, the quality of the games themselves are undiminished; after all, the hockey isn't played outdoors and football has a tradition of "ice bowls."

In contrast, baseball is a different game when it's played in freezing temperatures and the fans know it, which is why the Fall Classic's TV audience share is about half of what it was 15 years ago. Several years ago, Chris Constancio wrote for Hardball Times how in colder weather, more batters strike out, more walk, and home runs are rarer, putting more balls in play. Plus, with the exception of hockey, baseball is probably more associated in the popular imagination with a certain climate than any other sport. After all, it was former commissioner Bart Giamatti who famously said, "The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone."

Except now, when those chill rains come, we've still got a month left of frigid action. Thus, even if the baseball establishment gets its dream rematch this year of the Phillies and the Yankees in the World Series, the hunch here is that the ratings will be poorer than expected; November night baseball is an impossible sell and sequels rarely do as well as the original. Since cutting the number of games seems out of the question, especially in a recession, over time baseball is likely to move to a format where its championship is played in a neutral, warm-weather venue—much like the college World Series. Seven games in seven days (no need for travel at a neutral site!) might be a hard sell at first. But it can be marketed. The alternative is increasing irrelevance for fall baseball, as viewers vote with their clickers.

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Steven Stark has been a cultural commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America. More

Steven Stark has been a cultural commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America. He is the author of four books and one e-book and has written frequently for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and both the Boston Globe, where he was an op-ed columnist and the Montreal Gazette, where he was a world sports columnist.
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