Cheap Thrills, No Real Excitement: Thoughts On A New Playoff System
By Marty Niland
Once upon a time, not too long ago actually, baseball’s timeless traditions meant something. The All-Star game was the “Midsummer Classic,” a shining night when the best players in the game gave it their all for nine innings (or more) and pennant races went down to the last game of the season, maybe even beyond, and teams and their fans hung on until the very end.
But now, the great minds that cheapened what was once the best All-Star game in all of sports are about to do the same thing with the final days of the regular season and the postseason by adding a one-game showdown for each league’s wild card spot.
This is not a condemnation of an expanded postseason. In fact, the idea that began in 1995 has grown on many fans and has actually resulted in more excitement and tension in the postseason. Adding more teams to the postseason, in and of itself, it not a bad thing. It will also certainly increase the Nationals’ postseason chances and give their fans more opportunity to watch meaningful September games in the nation’s capital for the first time in more than a generation. But it’s the format that’s all wrong. A one-game playoff has been historically used as a tie-breaker, not an ice-breaker for the postseason, and putting one in for the sake of it doesn’t make sense.
There has been no doubt that some of baseball’s classic late-season and postseason moments have come in recent years, and most have been the result of adding wild card teams. The very first year of the new format, the Mariners and Angels went down to the wire for the AL West title (and the right to face the wild card Yankees). According to MLB.com, the Angels completed one of the greatest collapses of all time (they led the division by six games in mid-September) with 9-1 playoff loss to Seattle. That was the final fallout of the 1994 lockout, which canceled the postseason that year and stretched into the first few weeks of 1995.
Playoffs were used to determine a wild card spot in 1998 and 1999, and again in 2007, when ex-Nat Jamey Carroll drove in the winning run off Trevor Hoffman in the bottom of the 13th inning to send the Colorado Rockies over the San Diego Padres. The next two years, it was the AL Central that was up for grabs after 162 games, with the Minnesota Twins losing to the eventual World Series champion White Sox the first year, then knocking out the Detroit Tigers the next year in a 12-inning, 4 ½-hour thriller, with the winning run scoring from second base. That made it three years in a row that a tie had been broken by a one-game playoff.
Now, fast-forward to the exciting conclusion to the 2011 season: The Red Sox and Braves both blew large leads in each league’s wild card race, allowing the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL and the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL, to rally for those postseason spots, clinching them on the last game of the season, a de-facto playoff. The tension and excitement was possibly unprecedented, but only because those games mattered in the context of the standings.
That’s the logic behind creating the one-game playoff for the wild-card, a “What if every day was Christmas” mentality. But it’s flawed. The excitement is lost because there is really no tie to break. The Nationals and the Braves could be the last two teams in the NL wild card race, and the Nats could finish five games ahead of the Braves. But now, instead of a best-of-five series against the best division winner, the reward is a home-field advantage in a one-game playoff. Put the shoe on the other foot: The Braves have the five-game lead, while the Nats are battling the San Francisco Giants for that second spot. Davey Johnson has to go all out to secure that final spot, while Fredi Gonzalez has one spot locked up, so he can rest his starters and reset his rotation. How do you like your postseason chances now, Nats fans?
Oh, but there are so many more great baseball playoff moments: Bobby Thompson’s “shot heard ‘round the world” in 1951; Willie Mays scoring the go-ahead run on a walk against the Dodgers in 1962. Surely they are arguments for the excitement of a one-game playoff. Actually, no, those classic moments came in the deciding game of best-of-three playoff series, which is what this new playoff format should be, at least.
Baseball is moving from being about genuine, earned excitement to cheap, drummed-up drama. The All-Star game used to be when the best players in each league gave it their all for the fans. Now it’s when the best players who can work that game into their schedules play for home-field advantage for, most likely, another team from their league in the World Series… and when a one-game wild card playoff could ruin a whole season’s worth of accomplishments for one team, or give some choking dogs a chance they don’t deserve.
What’s next? Shortening the other postseason series to one-game? The World Series? That would hardly work. Tension builds up over a whole season or series. It can’t be manufactured in one game. If the fans want more thrills from the game, give them a best-of-three wild card series.