Is expanding the post season a good thing? Or simply too much of one?
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson, (writer, The Atlantic), and Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin) question whether expanding the baseball post-season would be a good idea.
October is nearly upon us. Wild-card races in both the National and American Leagues have been suspenseful, thrilling and down-to-the-wire—or perhaps dreadful, sickening, and down-to-the-final-Pepcid AC, if you're a Boston and/or Atlanta backer. The Moneyball film is actually pretty decent, and better yet, didn't get completely waxed by cartoon lions and trained dolphins at the box office.
In short, it's a great time to be a baseball fan. Now this: As part of a new collective bargaining agreement, Major League Baseball reportedly may add two wild-card teams and a one-game playoff in each league to determine which of the wild cards advances, a system that could be in place as early as next season.
Question is, is expanding the postseason a good thing? Or simply too much of one?
On one side, there's the same argument often used against instituting a Division I college football playoff—specifically, that making the postseason more inclusive renders the regular season less important. In campus pigskin, we're told, every game is a playoff game, because one loss can all but dash a team's chances of reaching the BCS title contest. (Unless you're TCU, in which case, good luck in what's left of the Big East!) Moreover, a bigger playoff pool increases the odds of fluky results. Invite too many teams to the postseason party, and coronations become crapshoots, in which the best teams seldom win (see the NCAA men's basketball tournament), the hot teams make a mockery of seeding (see the NFL) and literally anything can happen, and often does, except for the Phoenix Coyotes/Winnipeg Jets drinking beer out of the Stanley Cup (see the NHL).
On the other side of the debate, there's, whee! More teams means more fun! In 1995, people grumbled when baseball introduced the wild card and divisional playoff format in 1995; today, everyone loves it. In 1985, people grumbled when March Madness expanded from 32 to 64 teams; in the here and now, is there a single more exciting event on the annual sports calendar? Build a bigger VIP lounge, and more people have a chance to feel special; add playoff teams, and more fans have a reason to care, gamble and tune in.
Of course, that's the deus ex machina: playoff expansion is always, always driven by the desire to make it rain with television rights fees. Which makes postseason creep inevitable. Still, it's worth discussing. Hampton, where do you stand? Are you for spreadin' the playoff wealth around? Or, by allowing more teams behind the postseason's velvet rope, are we—Fox News voice—punishing regular-season success and excellence?
As you know, Patrick, I may be of a liberal/libertarian political bent, but when it comes to sports I'm usually to the right of Goldwater. A part of me does hate to see baseball destroying all the things that make it unique. Interleague play, for instance. To me, it's been a big, fat flop. Save for the few series played by natural rivals, like the A's versus Giants, or Mets and Yankees—series that matter to fans far more to players—mixing the leagues during the regular season has done nothing but destroy some of the game's mystique and create a few weekends of games that are only half as important in the standings.
That same Paleo-con part of me objects to the ever-growing pressure for more postseason play in all sports. It smacks of something impatient and almost childish in our culture—something which rewards the hot streak over perseverance. Do you know what NASCAR used to do before instituting their Chase for the Sprint Cup? The same thing IndyCar still does: At the end of the season, the driver with the most points is declared the champ. No playoffs or play-ins or wildcard games. None of that rigmarole.There is undeniably a certain stark elegance to that, and it truly would be shame to see baseball go the way of the NBA and NHL, for instance, where making the playoffs doesn't mean you are one of the best teams. It just means you aren't one of the worst.
That said, I'll contradict myself. (Sports are large they contain multitudes.) Sure. Let's do it. Let's add a few wildcard teams—not that Selig and company are waiting for anyone's approval. Okay, so it will detract just a smidgeon from baseball's rich tradition of having a rich tradition. Big deal. Adding wildcard teams couldn't be any worse than Interleague play. Or, for that matter, the unmitigated evil of a designated hitter. (Stop me before I turn into George Will.) As for the value of the regular season, that's strictly in the eye of the beholder. If you follow Auburn, for instance, the existence of a college football playoff isn't likely to change your passion for beating Alabama. Ditto for the Yankees and Red Sox, or a Cubs and Cardinals series in June. If Chicago happens to theoretically still be in playoff contention during that series—despite being 20 games out of first—who gets hurt?
My only concern is seeding and format. The team that won their division has to have a marked advantage over a club that snuck in the backdoor late. Jake, assuming you're down with the new set-up, what do you think is the best way to make it happen?
I KNOW RIGHT?!?!?! WASN'T WEDNESDAY THE BEST NIGHT OF REGULAR-SEASON BASEBALL YOU'VE EVER SEEN???? ISN'T THIS THE MOST PERFECT SYSTEM EVER!!!???
Oh wait, I see you've asked me a question. I'm still recovering from the wildest night of regular season MLB action I've ever seen, a night so scillintating it cause ESPN's Tim Kurkjian to gush, "This is why baseball is the greatest sport ever invented!" before briefly bursting into flame. For the uninitiated, the Braves and Red Sox both blew mammoth wild card leads this month, and both hapless clubs completed their collapses in the most gut-churning way possible on Wednesday. Needing a win to force a one-game playoff with the Cardinals, Atlanta blew a ninth-inning lead and lost 4-3 in 13 innings, sending them to an early offseason of Waffle House meals and afternoon tee times. And that was just the appetizer. At 10PM, the Rays were down 7-0 to the Yankees, while Boston was in a rain delay in Baltimore clinging to a one-run lead. Thenthis happened. Andthis. Andthis. And finally this.
When the dust settled, the Rays and Cardinals were improbable wild card winners while Boston and Atlanta fans had to swallow their teams' twins collapses. And if there had been a second wild card team coming out of each league, none of this drama would have happened.
Am I on board with changing the postseason, Hampton? Absolutely not. Fewer teams is obviously not an option (inane articles like this one notwithstanding), and adding another team would mess up what I call the power of 2 rule. The most egalitarian postseason system is one where every team plays the same number of rounds and the division winners are rewarded with home-field advantage. That's exactly what we have in baseball, and adding a second wild card in each league would necessitate a "play-in" game that would boost TV ratings but screw up the competitive balance of the playoffs. Unlike the U.S. government, baseball has actually found the perfect system for its postseason, as evidenced by the thrilling end to the regular season. It would be a shame if the MLB screwed it up in the name of revenue.
Emma, are you with me? Or did Boston's collapse leave you pining for that second wild card spot?
Like Jake, I get the benefit of responding to this thread after having witnessing Wednesday night's insanity—and while it didn't change my basic opinion, it did momentarily convince me of two totally conflicting conclusions: First of all, the system in place is perfect and wonderful and nothing should change because October is always this magical. And second, the system in place is evil and malicious and it punishes good people (Red Sox players and fans, obviously) almost indiscriminately. (Though some might say we deserve this pain, and they might be correct.)
Patrick, I like how you posed this question—that an expanded playoff in the MLB could either be "a good thing" or "too much of one." For biased fans, it would be a very good thing to have an additional Wild Card spot in the postseason—but only some years. I would have felt pretty good about having an additional Wild Card spot this year, for example. But Wednesday's action was just as thrilling as it was painful for me to watch (and I do recommend, if you haven't already, that youwatch and listen to it all at once), and there was just enough of it. Any more of that might have sent Kurkjian into orbit before he burst into flames.
As it currently exists, the length of the MLB postseason has always felt perfect to me. It's October, and nothing more. But sports fans tend to be amenable to change, especially if the change only means more of something that they already enjoy. And baseball fans, especially, are a vulnerable group: A good portion of the sport's romanticism and fans' nostalgia got washed away with the steroids era. So if the MLB goes through with the expanded field in 2012—and because this is about money, it's safe to assume it will—then I'm guessing the only people who will notice are those whose teams barely missed the second Wild Card slot.
Based on how I'm feeling today, it's probably best to limit the extent of that kind of pain as much as we can.