The baseball season is too long. Emotionally, I wish the season were year-round, but intellectually, I have a real problem with major leaguers continuing to play in November. (That’s partly because I’m a purist, and partly because, as I wrote on my old blog, I’d rather that November be reserved for the occasional World Baseball Classic.) So I’m completely unsympathetic to Bud Selig’s suggestion that baseball add two additional wild card teams in 2012.
Under this proposal, each league would have three divisional champs and two wild cards; the two wild card teams would play each other in a one-game playoff or best-of-three series, for the right to advance further in the postseason. The other six playoff teams would presumably simply take that half-week off, making the playoffs even longer, and reversing baseball’s previous efforts to ensure that the 2011 playoffs would not spill over into November.
This is a bad idea for a number of reasons. Selig’s stated rationale is fairness, and his likely rationale is money, and both justifications are suspect. What’s more, though it’s hardly as much of a concern as with the current NFL proposal to extend the football season to 18 games, player health should be a consideration.
Selig’s first justification, that having ten playoff teams is “more fair than eight,” is hard to credit, as Rob Neyer demonstrates ad absurdem:
By that “logic,” isn’t 12 playoff teams more than 10? And 14 more fair than 12? No major professional sport in history — not in recent history, anyway — has been concerned with fairness. Not when it comes to playoffs.
Moreover, from at least one notion of fairness, adding more playoff teams and more playoff series is actually unfair to the teams that had the best regular seasons, as it makes it more likely that they’ll get beaten in a short series by an inferior team. (Also, if fairness were truly at issue, then expanded playoffs would be accompanied by a discussing of video replay and other electronic methods of ensuring that the right calls get made on the field. That hasn’t happened yet, and it’s quite clear that Bud Selig is much more comfortable with expanding the playoffs than with expanding replay — or with any technology designed to make calls more accurate.)
Of course, points out Neyer, the real motivation for this is not fairness but money. However, baseball can’t simply automatically make more money just by scheduling more games. On Slate, Tom Scocca points out that around 14 million people watched the World Series this year, compared with 25-35 million people in the early 1990s, before Selig’s tenure. And the longer the playoffs goes, the less exciting each individual game becomes. That became abundantly clear this past Sunday, when a regular season Steelers-Saints game had higher ratings than Game Four of the World Series. The baseball playoffs already feel diluted to viewers, and that’s not good for business.
The thing about Selig’s plan is that his premise — that fans want to see a fairer game — may be flawed, but it isn’t outrageous. The problem is that his solution doesn’t actually make anything fairer. As a baseball fan, I want to see the best team win, and at the end of a long and lengthening season, the two half-crippled teams that reach the World Series are rarely the two that actually played the best over the course of the year; usually, they’re the ones who got hot at the right time, picked the right mix of midseason pickups and rookie callups, and the playoff roster is usually a far cry from the Opening Day roster. Another week of games in cold weather is a step in the wrong direction. The last thing that baseball needs is an even longer season.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.