I'm pleased to present the following guest post from friend-of-the-blog Lenny Vaisman. Lenny's a die-hard Yankee fan and was actually a semi-regular contributor to my initial foray into Yankee blogging, Save Phil Hughes, posting as HitMan23. Lenny comes to us today with a great (and fairly radical) argument for how baseball can vastly improve the regular season and playoffs.
To paraphrase Howard Bryant from Ken Burns' "The Tenth Inning," there are two ways to measure the success of Major League Baseball: If your only criterion is money, then MLB is more successful than ever. But if you measure baseball’s ability to maintain its mythic qualities and capture the hearts and minds of its fans, then baseball has become a depressing failure.
The point is not to mock capitalism. After all, baseball is an industry like any other. What I am trying to highlight is the feeling that Bud Selig and his cronies at both MLB and MLBPA have given making money an infinitely higher priority over their custodial duties relating to what used to be America’s Pastime. The attitude, at least from an outsider’s perspective, is "the fans pay, so who cares?" But the more I talk to knowledgeable and passionate baseball fans -- some of which romanticize the game and its past and some who don’t -- the feeling seems to be pervasive.
There are many ways that this is evident but with the recent conclusion of the latest postseason, there is one particular facet of baseball that I want to focus on here: the method by which baseball crowns its annual champion. My biggest problem with the current structure is that it rarely crowns the best team and effectively wipes away the longest season in professional sports with a roll of the dice. While the playoff entrants are often the best teams, the eventual World Champion is almost always the hottest team.
The regular season is, in and of itself, an effective playoff structure for MLB. Seems to me that baseball waits for the first eight competitors to finish the 26 miles of a marathon and then subjects them to a 100-yard dash to decide who wins. The season is a long, arduous grind -- and then it gets decided by whoever has the least noticeable limp. There’s a reason why NFL regular season games’ television ratings blow World Series games out of the water: MLB is selling a watered-down crapshoot tournament which rewards teams that are better at dealing with attrition and managing their starting rotation based on the given schedule rather than actually playing good baseball.
And now Commissioner Selig is talking about adding two more Wild Cards to the postseason. I’ve heard the arguments in favor of this idea -- that it makes it a fairer, more balanced sport. I’ve even heard that adding another layer, the single play-in game that would be played by the two Wild Cards in each league, is incentive to play for the division. However, if you want to create incentive to win the division, wouldn’t eliminating the Wild Card accomplish that? And why does baseball have to become fairer and more balanced? Is this youth soccer in the politically correct 1990s, where every kid gets a trophy? And someone please tell me why the justification is always to point at the NFL? Baseball doesn’t have to be anything but baseball, with its own charms. But more games equals more revenue, so Bud and Co. will continue to degrade the sport, using that empty logic as long as the fans keep showing up and paying.
My agenda as dictator of baseball would be to reverse the “NFL-ing” of MLB. I love football, but I breathe baseball and I want it to become special again. My plan would be as follows:
1) Eliminate the divisions. The divisions were created as a response to the growth of the league and the need for more playoff entrants, as well as to make geographical sense of arduous travel. Travel is much more commonplace, simpler, and quicker than it was in the 1960s, and MLB franchises are much wealthier. We can go back to two whole leagues without horizontal divisions, without geographic boundaries and without unbalanced schedules – another horrible concoction (Editor's Note: I'm completely on board with all of this). Furthermore, I’d really love it if they stopped selling me this bag of goods about regional rivalries and how they affect the composition of divisions -- the Yankees and Tigers used to be huge rivals, as were the Yankees and Indians. Your rivals are whoever you have to go through to get to your goal.
2) Create tiers. Most major sports league outside of North America operate in a promotion and relegation system. It’s time for MLB adopt this practice. As I’ll get to in a minute, my plan involves having only one layer of playoffs – the World Series. However, there are too many teams in each league for there to be only one prize to compete for. Promotion and relegation divides the teams into vertical tiers that are based on performance during the past season. Using the final regular season standings of the American League in 2010 as an example, the tiers would look like this for 2011:
Under this system, every team would play every other team an equal number of times, but only the five teams in the “Top” tier would be competing for a spot in the World Series in 2011. The teams in the “Middle” and “Bottom” tiers (I’m open to more creative names) would by vying for the top spot in their tier, which would entitle them to a promotion to the next-highest tier for the following season, as well as a larger share of MLB’s shared revenue. Concurrently, the team that finishes last in its tier gets relegated to the next lowest tier, swapping places with the team that is promoted from the lower tier.
I recognize that this system’s major downside is that it does away with baseball’s time-honored tradition of spring renewal, since two-thirds of teams will literally have no chance at a title that season. But all that does is effectively acknowledge reality and give the fans of teams in the bottom and middle tiers something real to root for: A promotion and accompanying financial windfall that would make it more difficult for them to be relegated just as quickly. So now the drama wouldn’t be reserved for only the top teams vying to win something, as teams will also fight tooth and nail down to the wire to not be relegated and lose shared revenue. This is also a more intelligent way to share MLB revenue since the current system just allows the Pirates and Marlins to pocket their shares without plowing it back into their teams.
3) Eliminate every round of playoffs prior to the World Series. No longer do we have to watch a field of the walking wounded stumble to the finish line. No longer do we have to watch baseball, a summer sport, play its most important games in the cold. No more inferior teams winning their way to the crown with three starting pitchers. No more drawn-out playoffs with unnecessary off days. No more uninteresting matchups, only the season's true heavyweights playing for a title. MLB will play a long season and just as the dog days of summer are winding down and the cool, crisp autumn rolls in, the winner of the top tier of each league will match up in the World Series.
4) Get rid of Interleague play. Another half-baked idea that makes more money but hurts the sport in the long run. Bring back the sacredness of separate leagues – it creates a youthful, exciting energy when those beams do finally cross.
It’s not like baseball’s playoffs can get worse. I find them boring and drama-free – a side-effect of a number of things, parity included. Allowing more entrants into the field will make more money for the league and will involve more regions, but it won’t create a better fan experience. On some level, I suppose I’m railing against parity. But the parity baseball is trying to create is an artificial, socialist one. Baseball -- or any professional sports league, for that matter -- is better off with a consistent and familiar upper class.
Admittedly, the changes I propose here are drastic, but the idea is to address the length of the playoffs (too long), the number of entrants into what should be a select field (too many), and the crapshoot nature of the playoffs (too fractured). In conjunction with limiting the playoff field, the point of implementing vertical tiers is to hang an economic carrot in front of lesser teams that can lead to long-term, sustainable success, which is a better solution for the sport than a system that gives everyone false hope and rewards mortgaging the future for limited opportunities.
Look no further than the Milwaukee Brewers, who began to develop a successful foundation in the middle of this past decade and found themselves in the midst of a playoff race in 2008, compelling them to put together a package for a CC Sabathia rental. There is something inherently wrong with a system where a small-market team that hasn’t made the playoffs in decades feels that it should mortgage the future for one shot at reaching the postseason instead of building for sustained success. Sure enough, the Brewers floundered in the divisional round, CC left as a free agent, and while none of the parts the Brewers moved have panned out thus far (Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson and Michael Brantley), the team hasn’t come close to competing since falling short in 2008. And even if the Brewers had managed to go on a magic carpet ride through the playoffs, can anyone outside of Wisconsin honestly say they would have been interested in, say, a Brewers-Rays World Series? So instead of having a team like the Brewers become an annual player, and have the ability for the club and MLB to market the likes of Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, the team is mired again in neutral mode after taking their one shot.
Would anyone be shocked if the Reds, a team with limited financial resources (read: regenerative ability), were nowhere to be found next year? Sure, the run was great for Cincinnati this year, just as it was for Colorado last year, Milwaukee in 2008, Cleveland or Arizona in 2007, etc., but wouldn’t it be better for these teams and regions and MLB if they had the ability to sustain a level of success? When those perennial also-rans break through temporarily, we end up with watered-down, drawn-out, and generally forgettable playoffs, boring matchups that no one outside of the immediately involved markets really cares about or will remember. It’s better for these teams to achieve success and sustain it, something that would be fostered by the tiered system I propose.
As a Yankee fan, it’s easy to cite recent playoffs where I was riveted (most of the time, it was actually desperation more so than pure enjoyment, but that’s just what the Yankees experience has become to me), and 2001 and 2003 stick out as particularly dramatic postseasons. It’s been far more challenging to get wrapped up in other teams’ recent postseason runs, something I didn’t find as challenging in the past. I recall being gripped by the 1986 postseason during the 1986 postseason, with the unbelievable magic and drama behind both the Mets-Astros NLCS and the Red Sox-Angels ALCS, not to mention the World Series; the 1988 postseason, where Tommy Lasorda’s Dodgers, led by Orel Hershiser, Mike Scioscia, Mickey Hatcher, and a hobbled Kirk Gibson battled through Dwight Gooden and the powerhouse Mets, leading to an all-time classic World Series against the upstart Oakland A’s of Bash Brothers fame; the 1989 NLCS battle between Will Clark’s Giants and Mark Grace’s Cubs, leading to the Bay Area Series; the 1990 Cincinnati Reds, who went on to shock and sweep the A’s; the best World Series any of us will ever see, where two well-built teams, the Braves and Twins, battled down to a John Smoltz-Jack Morris, 10 inning, 1-0 classic Game 7 in 1991; and in 1992 and 1993 when the Toronto Blue Jays, who first defeated an emerging Braves team and then a strong Phillies team, capped their run on a Joe Carter season-ending bomb.
My memory may serve me poorly, but I don’t remember any of these playoffs being decided by who got the most rest, who had the hottest three starters -- the things that regularly decide champions today. They were decided by recognizable, marketable teams playing two rounds of exciting baseball. The Yankees of the mid- to late-'90s were good for baseball in that they were a consistent enemy for all yet they played a brand of baseball and fielded players that garnered respect. But the end of the Yankees’ dynasty, ushered in by a Luis Gonzalez bloop single, signaled the end of an era for me.
Stepping out of my Yankees fan shoes for a minute, I have to ask – which playoff series has been a truly memorable one, on par with the ones mentioned above, since 2001? There were some great moments for the Yankees since, namely 2003 and 2009, but one of those ended in losing the title to the 2003 Marlins, the model for short-term success. And there have been some great moments for baseball, namely the Red Sox’s comeback in 2004, which ended in quite possibly the most anti-climactic World Series ever played. Outside of that, the MLB playoffs have drummed up local support at times, but have created very little drama and have done very little to coalesce the sport and its fans. It’s time we try reversing course.