Friday, November 18, 2011

Adding to the Already Unpredictable: Two More Wild Cards to the MLB Playoffs

The baseball championship is about being lucky and being hot at the right time. I've covered this over and over again and by this point, I'm even sick of me saying it. But that's the truth; the best team won't always win the World Series. The very way that the greatest game is structured gives way towards fluke performances, errant ground balls and uncontrollable elements in the immediate atmosphere. This isn't like basketball, where the climate-controlled arena and the 90 foot floor strive to contain the variables that would interfere in any action originating from a human hand. This isn't football where the sheer brutality of the sport will equalize the lesser teams and the talent will often rise to the top, despite playing a season that's one-tenth as long as Major League Baseball's. America's Pastime has always been the sport where one poorly placed pitch could change the name on the championship trophy in less than a second's time. Where a team whose players of inferior talent will overcome all limitations and ride an inexplicable wave of momentum to defeat a team whose players of far superior talent simply were having an off week.

Today, Commissioner Bud Selig signed off on a series of major changes to the league that magnify baseball's already unpredictable nature. As a part of the new collective bargaining agreement the Commish signed with the MLB Players Association (wait...I've heard that owners and players don't bargain anymore? What is this new trend here?), the 2013 season will feature several new facets that will be added to the MLB Playoffs.

1). First and foremost, there will be TWO wild card teams from both leagues. As has been the case for the previous 16 seasons, the team with the best non-division leading record will make the playoffs as a "wild card". Now, the team with the second best non-division leading record will also make the playoffs. These two teams will play in a one-game playoff to decide who goes on to play a 5-game elimination series, known now as the Divisional Series.

2). The Houston Astros, who have been a part of the National League since 1962, will now move from the National League Central division to the American League West. This will add an equal number of teams to each league (the NL currently has 16 teams, while the AL has 14 teams), and the disproportionately large NL Central with 6 teams and the 4 team AL West will now both have 5 teams a piece.

3). The Astros move to the AL will now create a necessity for interleague games to occur all-year round. As every team plays nearly every day from April to September, without continuous interleague play, any particular team in both league would be sitting at home 4 to 5 days at a time.

Let me state this: when play starts in 2013, many baseball fans are going to lose it. The complications are endless; interleague games in September will mean that teams in contention for their division or their league's wild card will be playing teams who are not competing for those same goals. Fans already complain when their favorite team is playing teams out of their division in September; what about teams that aren't even in the same league? Travel schedules could be more difficult. The DH-less National League will host games where AL pitchers will have to risk injury running the bases with their glass legs and soggy pasta ligaments during the crucial September months. In a time when teams should be focusing on the style of play dictated by their league, teams will have to select Designated Hitters that have no business being designated for hitting and bring their pitchers out earlier in order to play by the rules that shouldn't apply to them.

Baseball purists will moan that the game is getting even further away from the model that seemed to work for over a hundred years. Owners will decry their players being exposed to unnecessary injury for playing an uncommon style of play. General Managers will rail against a disproportionately difficult schedule for their teams.

But you know who won't complain? The fans in 30 years that will still be enjoying baseball because it's still relevant in a world of 20 second youtube clips and 3x fast forwarding on the DVR. Even in my staunch fandom, I must admit that baseball is a slow game only looks slower today, especially compared with NBA athletes who are faster than the preceding generation and NFL players who hit harder than anyone to hit the gridiron before them.

Bud Selig made this move for a lot of reasons. Some were to increase competitive balance between the 30 teams and some were to keep more teams playing relevant games in September. The sport now has a thousand new wrinkles and curves that even the most jaded fan will find interesting and will catch the attention of the average American sports fan that has written off baseball as plodding and dull. Either way, revenues will increase, interest, for better or for worse, will be at a high and the focus will again be on baseball.

The last 3 years, the playoff participants had to wait until at least game 162 to see who the final 8 playoff teams would be. In 2009, the Twins and White Sox played a one-game playoff to see who would win the AL Central crown and play the Tampa Bay Rays in the division series. The very next year, the Twins played game 163 yet again, this time against the Detroit Tigers. One month ago, the season only lasted 162 games, but 4 dramatic games and two historic collapses later, the playoff participants were all decided on the last day of the 2011 campaign.

The last three year-end finales to baseball have been some of the most dramatic games I've ever seen in my entire sports-watching lifetime. Every single contest was charged with the type of excitement that is typically absent from a brutally long season in which even the most fervent fan will admit that (typically) one game will not make a difference in the scheme of 162 of them. I spent three Septembers in a row watching games between the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. I cared about every single one of those contests as if the Dodgers were about to clinch the division. The players on the field threw every last ounce of energy into a game which had everything riding on it. After all, just getting to the playoffs gives you as equal of a chance to win the title as anyone.

Bud Selig saw this. He loved the electricity that emanated from every corner of those ballparks and the palpable fire that came through the fingertips of his players. He saw that people cared about these games regardless of the fact that all a victory would mean was becoming potential fodder for another highly-favored opponent in the next round out of a possible 3. He loved that these games always ended up being the best of a season that lasts 6 months when everyone involved is affected by some type of malady, whether it be physical or mental. And you know what? I felt every bit of that too, Bud.

Selig had to do this. Yes, there are going to be some competitive disadvantages and people are going to be upset that the season will look more different than it ever has before. But I guarantee you that the game will never be healthier and the product more interesting. Every year, two more cities will get to be reanimated from a long summer swoon of 4 hours of 9 innings and situational lefty relievers. Two more cities will get to enjoy October baseball. Two more cities will get to harness an inexplicable wave of momentum and surpass every expectation that we shouldn't have put on them in the first place.

Winning the World Series has always transcended the simple rules of competition and skill. I always have so many questions I couldn't answer. Now I'll have at least two more. And I'm really excited about it.

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