My son and I had a rather spirited debate last night about play-offs. The essential problem seems to be that… well, I guess it’s that I’m old. You see, I can remember when every team in both leagues played every other team in its league an equal number of times—and only such teams—during the regular season. Then the winners of the two 154-game seasons went to the World Series and duked it out. The championship meant something. Nowadays… the one thing my son and I agreed about was that nowadays it’s all about money. Draw as many teams into the post-season as you can, and keep it all going as long as you can. More tickets, more ads sold on TV… and, of course, the players are also happy to have the extra revenue. But it seems to me that our society is less and less preoccupied with matters of basic fairness, in baseball and everything else. There are fewer and fewer clear winners: everything is always getting scuffed up, discredited, recounted, litigated.
Yeah, whatever my body’s telling me—and I’m in very good shape (thank God) for a sixty-five-year-old—I am indeed aging. In spirit. Times were better long ago, in some ways… or am I dreaming?
Consider: wild-card teams have been admitted to the play-offs since 1994. That’s twenty-five years. In that span, a wild-card entry has reached the Series thirteen times, cashing in on over fifty percent of opportunities. And the second wild card has existed only since 2014. What does that tell you?
It tells me this: teams that heat up in late August are reliably beating up on teams that have logged a hundred victories over a long season when both get to October. I don’t see the fairness in allowing the former to have an almost equal shot at the latter (and if the Series this year taught us anything, it’s that home-field advantage doesn’t count for much).
My argument, based largely on reading the accounts of players who were active half a century ago and more, is that winning a hundred games is quite wearing. Guys tend to stumble and stagger into October after posting successes at that exhaustive level. (Not really such an outdated notion: Freddy Freeman, the heart and soul of the Braves’ offense, did nothing against the Cardinals in the divisional play-off—and then had elbow surgery within a week of his season’s close.) Teams that have wallowed in mediocrity before striking gold at the trade deadline, however, or maybe recovering a star player who has been sidelined for months are able to come out of the gate in September looking like a wholly different squad from anything you’ve seen all year… and so they are. Maybe it wasn’t “fair” that Star Player went down in June—and you could say, of course, that everyone had an equal shot at the Trade Deadline Sweepstakes. But injury would have been considered a “luck” issue rather than a “fairness” question back before our brains forgot how to process words; and as for trades, when you’re on pace to rack up 107 wins, you don’t mess with your line-up. That allows you to hit three digits… but, again, it also multiplies the wear and tear on your magnificent starters.
My son would come back with two points. 1) The Nationals had the best record in baseball since July; and 2) I just don’t like the Nationals. Both of these claims are true. (I hated the Nats from the start because the media complex shoved them down my throat as the game’s new Golden-Haired Child; I actually like them a lot better after reading an article last week that profiled many of their young men as humble people of faith and determination.) Even conceding—as I do—that Washington would have been a division-winner if the season had dragged on another couple of weeks, I’m still looking at a winner of two-thirds of a season edging out teams that won the whole season, as things now stand.
My son ripostes with the fully valid observation that some divisions are much weaker than others. Couldn’t agree more. That’s why I would propose the following.
Two divisions per league. Add one team to each league so that all divisions will have a total of eight (32 altogether). Each team will play very other team in the league eight times, and will face teams within its division an additional three times (for a total of eleven). Add an additional one game with every team in the other league. These will essentially be exhibition games that count: fans can have a small but complete exposure to the other league, yet standings will not be compromised because the Braves play the Red Sox six times while the Phillies draw the Rangers. (I’m from Fort Worth, so back off: I get to take that dig after growing up in utter misery.) That tallies to 157 games: a nice compromise between the Old School 154 and the later 162. The season is simply too long as it stands for teams that must continue into October. Now they have a schedule trimmed by one week.
Play the winners of each division against one another in a seven-game series, and play the second-place teams of each division in a series of the same length. Then… this is where it gets interesting. The second-place winner plays the first-place winner in a five-game series, in which the former must win four games to move on. Not only that… but three of the five will be played in the division-winner’s ball park, and that team’s brain trust can determine beforehand which three of the five are played at home. After this round, we have our World Series contestants.
No, it’ll never happen. I know that. And as this world goes, there are things of much greater importance to worry about. Much, much greater. I’m only pointing out that there would indeed be ways to make victories count more as… say, victories. As something that really mattered. If we’re going to play a game by a set of rules, then prospering within the stated terms of competition should have real-world consequences. Otherwise, why not just have the team that played best in May and July combined play the winner from June and September combined? Why not have the home-run-leading team play the ERA leader? Why not give an automatic slot to a poor franchise that hasn’t been to the dance in decades? Why not… oh, who cares? Who really cares any more?