The league commissioner should move as fast as he can to implement this new, exciting system.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has a decision to make. The league has already said it will expand the playoffs, adding one wild card team in each league, meaning that 10, rather than eight, teams will make the post-season. The wild card teams will play a one-game playoff to decide which team advances to the respective divisional series. The question right now is whether Selig wants to implement this format for this season or next. Selig has until March 1 to decide, followed by the consent of the players' union. Let's hope they choose to go full steam ahead.
Baseball adores its traditions, which is funny because the game has been evolving since its inception. Sure, most of the basic field rules have remained static throughout the game's history. But determining the sport's champion has never been a settled process. Over the years the World Series has been a best-of-seven series and a best-of-nine series, the latter in place for the 1903, 1919, 1920, and 1921 Series. Determining which teams play in the World Series has also changed. Until 1969, the teams with the best records in the National League and the American League squared off. But when both leagues split into two divisions that year (following the addition of four new teams), the division winners played in the best-of-five league championship series (later extended to a best-of-seven) to determine who would represent each league in the World Series.
Since 1995, when the leagues split into six total divisions and MLB added two wild card entries, there have been eight playoff teams each year. Eight teams out of 30. So is adding two more teams—so that one-third of all clubs reach the playoffs—really going to make a big difference? You bet it will, and mostly for the better.
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The opportunity to generate additional revenue—both for the teams and the league, but also for its television and advertising partners—is the most obvious reason why Major League Baseball wants to add two games to its postseason lineup. The sport is acting out of self-interest, yes; but the new system will have a trickle-down effect. Fans weren't clamoring for more playoff teams, but that doesn't mean they won't reap the benefits. Additional postseason spots mean more teams will be within range of the playoffs for a longer stretch of the season, which means more fans from more markets will be invested in the pennant race.
Say you're a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, an organization that hasn't reached the playoffs since 1993—thanks, in part, to their own failings, yes; but thanks more to the profligate franchises in Boston and New York. As things currently stand, Toronto needs to beat out the Yankees, the Red Sox, and a well-run organization in Tampa Bay in order to reach the playoffs. The odds of that happening in the current format are obviously miniscule. But with the addition of a second wild card, Toronto can actually reach the playoffs by finishing third in the American League East—where they finished eight times between 1998 and 2007. Short of instituting a salary cap, which is probably never going to happen, an additional wild card represents the best opportunity for the Blue Jays (or, dare to dream, the Baltimore Orioles) to reach the postseason.
And this is a bad thing? It's hard to see how.
Now, will this new system be flawless? Of course not. The season is already extremely long, and the addition of more rounds (however short) will only lengthen it. In addition to adding two wild cards, the new proposal calls for division ties to be settled with a one-game playoff, rather than the current system of comparing their records playing against each other—because the difference between winning the division and winning a wild card spot will now be stark. So, yes, there's a perfect storm out there that could drag the postseason into November. Will we survive? I think we might. (And there's a major positive consequence to adding a second wild card team: Teams will have the added incentive to win the division and avoid the one-game playoff. Right now there's little distinction between winning the division and winning the wild card. Both teams get to play in a five-game divisional series. )
Another point of possible contention is that the wild card game could feature two teams with wildly divergent won-loss records. People will ask, "Is it fair that a 100-win team has to risk its season in a one-game playoff against, say, an 87-win team?" A reasonable response: "Well, considering that 100-win team would not have even reached the playoffs pre-1995, I'd say it's more than fair."
Yet another issue is that the addition of a second wild card will increase the likelihood that the World Series will be won by a team that's flukishly hot—as opposed to a team that played consistently great in the regular season. My response to that is, "So what?" The Green Bay Packers were flirting with a perfect record for much of this past NFL season, while the New York Giants had to scratch and claw to make the playoffs. Is anyone going to argue that the Giants didn't deserve to win the Super Bowl? Or that their victory was somehow less exciting because they became the first 9-7 team to win a title? The analogy to baseball isn't perfect, but no system for determining a sports champion is ever perfect. It's all arbitrary—whether we decide to use a nine-game series, a seven-game series, or a one-game Super Bowl. The question we should ask ourselves is, "Will this be more entertaining for fans?"
When it comes to adding two one-game playoffs to the MLB postseason, the answer is an unequivocal yes. And when it comes to implementing this new system, Commissioner Selig should go ahead and do it for this year.
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