One game simply not enough to decide season
Expanded postseason should include another three-game series
Major League Baseball is suddenly making wholesale changes that should only lead to the betterment of the sport. It began on Thursday, with the announcement that the Astros will move from the National League Central to the American League West as soon as 2013, a move that will produce six five-team divisions and allow for the addition of two more Wild Card entrants. This wrinkle will only make September more exciting and ultimately, make winning a division more important.
But there's one gripe I have with all of this: The one-game playoff between the two Wild Card teams should be a best-of-three series, instead.
See, it's tough to say you're expanding the postseason when you're only adding one additional game -- one game that will hurt the No. 4 seed that has been granted a five-game series since the Wild Card began in 1995. One game won't really give us the time to enjoy the expanded playoff picture, and it will lead to the short sample size and sheer randomness that really has no place in a game like baseball.
If you really want to expand the postseason, then MLB needs to add an actual series -- not a virtual play-in game.
"We haven't come to a final decision, but if I had to guess today, it would be the one game," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said from the General Managers Meetings in Milwaukee. "Much to my surprise, baseball people -- my 14-man committee included -- only wanted one game. The only guy who had some concerns about it was me. But they liked the one game, and it will be dramatic."
And Selig's 14-person special committee has raised two very legitimate concerns about making it more than that: The long layoff the three division winners may have to deal with while waiting for the two Wild Card teams to duke it out, and the threat that these extra games could drag the season into November again.
"Whatever team is going to be playing the Wild Card team would have to sit around for at least an extra three days, and the layoff is a bad thing," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who's part of Selig's committee. "You don't want to push the World Series into November, and you don't want to ask the division-winning teams to sit around. And one-and-done games are really exciting. It generates an awful lot of fan interest."
Not as much as a best-of-three series would. And there are ways to make that happen while also easing the committee's concerns.
Here are a couple ...
With travel factored in, a three-game series could take up to five days, which is the amount of time the three division winners will be left sitting around and waiting. Nobody wants that. And it wouldn't be wise to combat it by creating unconventional schedules for the two teams fighting for their playoff lives.
An alternative: Have the Wild Card team that finishes with the better record host the entire three-game series.
This way, MLB will be rewarding the Wild Card team that has met the postseason standard it has set for the last 17 years. With travel being a non-factor, the league can then schedule three games in three days. Up to three or four days off for a team that just went through a 162-game season isn't an indictment on a division winner; it's a godsend -- one that will allow it to line up its rotation and get banged-up players healthy, without growing particularly rusty.
"I like the way it's being done right now -- as long as you're not the team that's in it for one game, because [you'd] play 162, and then it's one game," Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Beeston said. "That's going to make it very exciting, but do you want your 162 ending up with one game? I'll tell you what, it's tough."
Something else nobody wants: Baseball in November, when the weather is coldest and other sports are in full swing. It may not have been a big deal to San Francisco or Texas in 2010, but it sure isn't fun if you're a Northeast team in the Fall Classic, like the Yankees and Phillies were in 2009.
For a solution to this, we can borrow something from the past: that good ol' doubleheader.
The Athletics did it successfully in mid-July. Fitting several more of them into the schedule would ensure the season doesn't end in November and would be a nice novelty for teams that are constantly trying to come up with creative ticket packages to get fans through the gate.
How would players feel?
"As long as it's already scheduled in there, and the team already knows about it, and you can kind of get your rotation set up for that, I think it could be a success," Indians closer Chris Perez said earlier this summer. "I think the players would be open to it, actually."
That's just one man's opinion, of course. But teams play in doubleheaders all the time because of postponements. Having one or two on the schedule wouldn't be that big a deal, especially not if it leads to a greater good.
And an additional best-of-three series is that greater good.
Yes, a one-game playoff for the second Wild Card team sure beats the alternative -- that of going home -- but it's not as fun and simply unfair. Just ask Jack McKeon, the longtime manager, current Marlins special assistant and the skipper for the Reds in 1999, when his team played a one-game Wild Card tiebreaker against the Mets and lost, 5-0.
"If you're a Marlins fan, or a fan of any other team that gets in [with the new playoff system], you deserve to have more than one game," McKeon said when reached by phone on Friday. "Now, if you're only playing one game in a neutral site, I don't know. ... It's too random."
Expanding the playoffs is wonderful for baseball. But MLB needs to give the two benefiting teams a fighting chance and fans more opportunity to enjoy it.
One game simply isn't enough.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. Reporter Gregor Chisholm contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.