Mediocrity rising: baseball gone "wild" with added playoff teams.As has happened so many times before in the world of sports, more proves to be less in the light of day. The major league's latest boiler room scheme of adding two more playoff teams--the dreaded extra wild cards--is not even designed to address the postseason's major structural flaw, the fact that the eight (now 10) teams with the best records are not assured of securing a playoff berth.
By adding more clubs to the playoff picture--as occurred when extra divisions were created in the mid 1990s--the money-counters who run our National Pastime think they will create more races that involve more teams. That is not necessarily so. For instance, last year's dramatic September surges by the eventual world champion St. Louis Cardinals in the National League and Tampa Bay Rays in the American League, in which both clubs overcame double-digit games-behind deficits to secure a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season, would have been rendered meaningless, as the clubs that were ousted from the postseason picture--the N.L's Atlanta Braves and A.L.'s Boston Red Sox--would have qualified as the second wild card under the new system.
In fact, much the same can be said for the season before (2010), when the Braves, San Diego Padres, and eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants fought to the final day for a playoff spot--in other words, three teams for two slots (S.E and S.D. for the N.L. West title, all three for the wild card), while the new system would have assured the entire trio a trip to the postseason.
When the World Series began in 1903, there were two eight-team leagues, the National and American. The first-place team in each circuit met in the Fall Classic. In 1969, with each league having expanded to 12 teams, East and West Divisions of six teams apiece were created. The first-place teams in the East and West in each league met in a best three-out-of-five Championship Series. The victors moved on to the World Series, a best four-of-seven affair. The LCS was extended to a best four-of-seven in 1985.
In 1995, with baseball having expanded to 30 teams, each league now was comprised of three divisions, where the division champs and the club with the best second-place record (the wild card) advanced to the playoffs, thus adding an extra round--called the Division Series, a best three-of-five--to the postseason.
Here is where injustice reared its ugly head. While the wild card setup ensures that the team with the second-best record in either league makes the playoffs, it does not guarantee that the top four teams (by record) qualify--a major drawback, for no matter how many clubs qualify for the playoffs, it would seem to be imperative that they be the ones with the best records. In Commissioner Bud Selig's view, however, that is not necessary.
Actually, as often as not, the four "best" teams fail to advance. (Doubters should feel free to examine the final standings from 1995-2011, in which many potential wild card teams have been left home while division champs with lesser records moved on.) Indeed, when it does happen that the four best qualify--the lest two seasons, for instance--it is by chance and not design. While this year's extra wild card entrant lessens the possibility that a "deserving" team will not be in the postseason, there are no guarantees. It has occurred mere than once that two teams with better records than a division champ have been left to contemplate what could have been.
Another problem is that the two wild cards in each league now will meet in a one-game play-in. What baseball's brain trust is trying to do is punish the wild cards that they themselves created. The thinking goes that, since the wild cards did not finish first, they should have to earn their way into the LDS. That approach is not necessarily flawed, but the one-game play-in is.
Among the things that make baseball different from other sports is that it is an everyday endeavor. Do the math: teams play 162 games in six months. A truism of all sports is that, the more you play, the greater the chances that the "better" team will win. Obviously, there are time constraints on a postseason in which the "Summer Game" has, in the past, staged its World Series on November nights. Still, a two-out-of-three wild card round makes mere sense--and, it that is not enough "punishment" for these second- and perhaps third-place finishers, eliminate travel days for this mini-series (that should start the afternoon following the regular-season finale).
As for the overall postseason picture, the recommendation here--since it is evident that baseball refuses to ensure that only the teams with the best records will advance--is to go from a two-of-three wild card round, to a three-of-five League Division Series, to a four-of-seven League Championship Series, to a five-of-nine World Series, just like the Fall Classics of yore (1903 and 1919-21). To make room, chop a few contests off the regular season and, should baseball's hierarchy actually want to tip its cap to tradition, it can throw in a couple of World Series day games for good measure.
Wayne M. Barrett is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of USA Today.