There's Only One October

Jim Caple, before Game 4 of the World Series:

This is the seventh series this postseason and it likely will be the fifth to end in a sweep (of the 22 previous teams to take a 3-0 World Series lead, 19 swept it). Of the other two series, one ended in four games. Even the one series that went the limit scarcely had a good game -- the average margin of victory in the American League Championship Series was five runs, with Boston outscoring Cleveland 30-5 the final three games. And let's not get into all the days off without any game at all.

You know a postseason is bad when the most interesting moment is an invasion of insects.

Obviously, I'm not complaining about the outcome, but Caple's right. Buster Olney has similar thoughts, behind the ESPN firewall, and he makes the larger point that really, there hasn't been a good World Series since the Tribe-Marlins tilt of 1997.* (And that one involved the Marlins depriving the Indians of a championship, so I've basically stricken it from my memory.) I would add that the postseason as a whole hasn't produced any really memorable series in the three years since the Yanks-Red Sox war in '04 (and the neglected, but likewise excellent, Cards-Astros battle the same year). Yes, the Sox-Indians went seven games this year, as did the Mets-Cards semi-final in '06, but I wouldn't call either one a series for the ages, and beyond that it's been a sweep here, and a sweep there, with precious few of the extra-inning marathons and shocking turnarounds that you look for in postseason baseball.

Not that this has hurt baseball's popularity; far from it. But I think that mediocre playoffs may be a predictable consequence of the very thing that's driving baseball's revenues sky-high: The wild card system. In the regular season, the wild card has been a great success, the death of the classic pennant race notwithstanding: Joined to revenue sharing, it's made many, many more teams dream contending dreams deep into the season, which not only keeps fan bases excited in cities like Milwaukee and Denver but also improves the overall quality of play, since more teams have something to play for in August and September, and fewer teams dump salary at the trading deadline and turn the last third of the season into a battle between haves and have-nothing-but-prospects. I'd still probably vote for expanding the leagues by two teams and creating four four-team divisions, but I'm crotchety and old-fashioned; it's hard to argue that the wild card hasn't been a good thing for the sport overall.

But the expanded playoff system, while it's had its moments, comes with an awful lot of built-in problems: The 3-of-5 first round is engineered to produce sweeps and injects an enormous crapshoot effect into an already overly-random system; the sheer number of teams that make the playoffs prevents postseason rivalries from taking shape (not just the ancient Dodgers-Yankees rivalries, I mean, but also the great '70s battles between the Orioles and the A's, or the Yankees and the Royals or the Phillies and the Dodgers); you end up with too many series where a mediocre team, having lucked into a victory in the preceding round, is wildly overmatched against its next opponent; the built-in off days, which increased this fall for no good reason, create enormous amounts of momentum-sapping dead time (hello, Rockies!); the plethora of games makes each individual contest and series less memorable, even if it's really good; and finally, the whole thing just seems too damn long. Yes, MLB's postseason has fewer rounds than any other major sport, and fewer games than basketball and hockey, but the combination of multiple rounds with the uniquely-interminable length (and late starts) of postseason baseball games made me weary and bleary-eyed this month, and I had a rooting interest all the way through.

These are problems that either can't or won't be fixed, because doing so would involve killing various golden gooses. But they're problems nonetheless.

* Not being an ESPN Insider, I don't know if Olney includes this caveat later in his piece, but obviously, the 2001 World Series was fantastic.