Major League Baseball is experiencing what is, on paper, one of the best pennant races ever this year as the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees have been nip and tuck all summer long as they battle each other for first place in baseball’s strongest division, the American League East. At one point, the Yankees and Rays were tied for first for eight straight days; a modern day record.
While this is a great pennant race on paper, however, it lacks any of the drama and day to day excitement that should accompany it. Both teams have known since late August that barring a collapse of nearly unprecedented proportions, they would both make the playoffs, whether they won the division or not.
With the wildcard being awarded to the best non-division winning team in each league, in the American League this year it has been a foregone conclusion during what should be the final acts of a classic pennant race that the winner and the loser of the race would go play in a best of five divisional series. The only real advantage for the division winner would be possible home field advantage throughout the playoffs (though not the World Series as that is decided by the All Star game, which this year went to the National league).
The benefit of having the home field in baseball is marginal. Any team would be happy to have it, but in the overall scheme of things, it is simply not that big of a deal. While during the regular season, the home team wins more often than not, that to a large degree is attributable to fatigue, both mental and physical, on long road trips. During the playoffs, when the intensity is amplified and the adrenalin flowing, fatigue is not a factor and focus is maximized regardless of where the game is played.
And, really, the home field advantage is only realized when a five game series goes the full five games. If a team is swept in the first three games, it’s difficult to place the blame on what field they played on. If a series goes four games, each team has had two games at home. If it goes the full five, having the deciding game at home is certainly attractive, but it’s not keeping fans glued to their sets during the marathon that baseball is.
Baseball is the sport that is supposed to reward long term excellence and endurance. For generations, its appeal has been rooted in the day to day nature of it; it stays with you all summer long and ends in the fall. While baseball romantics can easily get out of control with their description of the game, there is undoubtedly a lot of truth in the payoff in baseball being earned over a long summer that contains a daily grind.
September is supposed to contain the final and most exciting acts of the regular season. This year, though, the pennant race in the American League East is akin to making out with your lover for a while knowing the whole while that you wouldn’t finish the act until next week. Was the experience better than nothing? Maybe. But lacking the payoff, it really was more frustrating than anything else.
The end of the regular season in the American League East reminds me of the final episode of the Sopranos. Fans of baseball, much the way fans of the Sopranos did, stayed with it for a long time. We defended the sometimes tedious nature of it and the slow pace of certain parts of it. We were expecting a payoff. But the regular season will simply end now, with no sense of finality or accomplishment. We will know who technically won the American League East in a couple of days, but we will never know who really is the American League East champion.
While both teams say that they want to win the division (sure, why not?), neither, logically, is going to push their pitchers particularly hard in the final week of the season. Neither team is going to play people who are even slightly injured and neither team is going to be despondent if it loses nor exhilarated if it wins. The players, managers, coaches and fans have to be looking forward now to next week, when a pressure cooker best of five game playoff series will begin; the only thing that is left to be determined is what team each plays, the Texas Rangers or the Minnesota Twins.
The expanded playoff system, with eight teams making it, is not going away. Introduced in 1995, it has been mostly a huge success for baseball. With it, came the splitting of each league from two to three divisions and the doubling the number of teams in each league that made the playoffs from two to four.
More teams are involved in playoff races means better attendance and television ratings. The expanded playoffs allow for more playoff content as well, and that has given Major League Baseball the leverage it needs to get a network such as TBS, otherwise a second tier network, on board, eager to be in the limelight in October by broadcasting much of the post-season.
The downside, of course, to the Wild Card is what is happening this year. Never again, under the current system, will the two best teams in either league fight it out to the last day of the regular season for the right to move onto the post season. Particularly, too, with the unbalanced schedule (where teams play double the amount of games against teams in their own division as they do against teams outside of their division), means it’s unlikely that a three team race between the three best teams would happen either. The races that exist now are in divisions where lesser teams are fighting it out…and while they can be full of drama, without the best teams involved it is not as exciting to the nation as a whole.
The downside to the expanded playoffs cannot be completely fixed. But the near meaningless of the race this year in the American League East could be mitigated by changing the format and the alignment, and in the process could help bridge the economic disparity that plagues baseball as well.
Teams that do not win the division and get in as a wild card must be penalized much more than they are today.
Probably the most likely solution to the problem (and it’s one that Commissioner Bud Selig has not dismissed out of hand) is to create another wild card team in each league.
The two wild cards would play off in a best two out of three series at the end of the season, while the teams that won their divisions would get extra rest and a chance to set up their pitching for the playoff series. This would put the wild card teams at a major disadvantage and would put a premium on winning the division. It would also get even more teams involved in the playoff chase down the stretch, helping some of the lower payroll teams generate interest.
The other and less likely scenario would see the abolishment of both the American and National Leagues and a complete realignment of the sport into six divisions of four teams each and two divisions of three teams each.
There would no longer be wildcard every year, but the same number of teams would make the postseason, as the winner of each division would advance to the playoffs, making winning the division imperative.
The downside to this system is the fact that with baseball’s current number of 30 teams, two divisions would have only three teams each, and very likely a team would eventually make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record. But one of the ways to address that risk would be to require that a team has a winning record, or 83 wins, or the wild card does in fact take effect, and a non-division winner from another division would make it in that team’s place. It is sort of a hybrid model, but would make the pennant races much more credible than they are today.
It also would provide the chance to group some of the big market teams with payroll advantages into the same division. Can you imagine the rivalries in an Eastern Division containing the Red Sox, Yankees, Mets and Phillies?
Much as baseball as a sport doesn’t really lend itself to television, the sport doesn’t fit well into a playoff qualification process. That said, the actual baseball postseason is arguably the best in all of sports. While expanded playoffs have been, on balance, a good thing, they also have come at too great a cost to the regular season races; changing the system would help.
Source: Steve Buckley, “Bronx Hardly Burning With Drama”, bostonherald.com