Yesterday, Jayson Stark wrote a column that was music to my ears. His column was the first serious report I’d read to indicate that Bud Selig’s dream of adding a second wild card in each league had hit a logistical snag. Stark is careful to note that it is still possible — “All of this is solvable,” says one of Stark’s sources — but the drumbeat of inevitability has been momentarily hushed.
I want to keep the schedule from expanding further and prevent the slippery slope of an expanded playoff schedule eroding the significance of the regular season. The main objection beyond that is the speciousness of the stated reasoning. Bud Selig has couched the idea of expanding the playoffs in language about “fairness”… Obviously, this plan is predicated on money.
There isn’t much terribly wrong with this plan, in the abstract: it will make a lot of people richer while helping to increase the hopes of Blue Jays and Orioles fans without much hurting the fans of other teams. Compared to them, my objections are relatively minor. But I wish baseball’s leadership weren’t so disingenuous about it all.
I’ve written a number of columns about the playoffs, and my basic position is simple: more playoffs means that the regular season means less. It cheapens the product. (I’m very sympathetic to the Blue Jays’ situation, of course. But I’d prefer to address that by rethinking baseball divisions and getting rid of unbalanced schedules, rather than by continuing to expand the playoff pool every year.)
Look, I hate the baseball offseason more than anyone, but I’m relatively unique among American sports fans, who have already turned their attention to football by the time the baseball season reaches its apogee. Baseball World Series ratings have plummeted compared to football over the past two decades, and part of the reason is the interminable season. Stretching the season into November doesn’t help matters.
It was a minor victory when, in 2011, the World Series actually finished before November, for the first time since 2008. But the playoffs are still incredibly languidly paced. The biggest reason that the playoffs stretch on, of course, is television revenue: Fox and the other networks who bid on playoff baseball want a typical series to have games on nights when they’ll get their biggest viewership: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. So the off days are scheduled to satisfy almighty Mammon.
Since becoming commissioner, Selig has already expanded the playoffs once by adding a single wild card, and he’s looking to do it again. It’s only a single game this time, but it’s hard to feel certain that they’ll stop at two wild cards. After all, as I mentioned above, the fundamental argument has always been “fairness.” But if 10 playoff teams is “fairer” than eight playoff teams, then 12 playoff teams must be fairer than ten. Using that logic with that limited definition of what’s fair means that there’s essentially no way to stop adding playoff teams.
Moreover, a short-term view of the money — more games equals more dollars, ad infinitum — leads one to the same conclusion. But one look at the decline in Nielsen ratings for playoff baseball over the past two decades suggests that may be an overly simplistic analysis.
The reason for the recent snag is just about scheduling: certain dates in the 2012 playoff schedule are already set in stone, and it is difficult to figure out quite how the extra wild card games will fit in. But all sides appear to agree in principle on the concept. Stark writes that Bud Selig is “adamant” to get this done in 2012, but whether or not he is successful, appears like there will be no problem implementing the new playoff schedule in 2013.
Selig has presented the new wild card as a corrective to the original wild card, rather than an expansion. If an agreement is reached, then under the new rules, the two wild cards will play one another in a one-game playoff for the right to play in the division series against one of the division winners. The wild card team, it is argued, would therefore be disadvantaged against the slightly better-rested division winner.
That’s certainly what Richard Justice thinks. Justice writes for MLB.com now, but he’s a veteran sportswriter with prior service at the Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, and ESPN. Because he works for the organization that’s trying to implement this policy, I doubt that he would have spoken out nearly as strongly if he didn’t support the new wild card — but I doubt he would have written something he didn’t believe. “To add two additional playoff teams while actually increasing the importance of the regular season is sheer brilliance,” Justice writes. “If you worried that baseball was diluting the regular season, your concerns have been addressed.”
So I may be an outlier even among the purist, old-fogey crowd. But I’m not alone. Tim Lincecum, Buster Posey, and Mark Teixeira have all spoken out in favor of the current system.
Still, Selig justifies his current action by recalling how many people who were previously against the Wild Card, all the way back in 1995, are now strongly in favor. In fact, he’s brought back one of his favorite icky metaphors. In 2010, he said:
If I had defiled motherhood I don’t think I could have gotten ripped any more than I did. But now it’s fascinating to me. Now they not only like it so much, they want more of it.
Then, just a few days ago, he said:
You would have thought I had defiled motherhood, the way they talked about how I ruined the game… But look what it’s done.
Ew, Bud. Just stop it. Please.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.