Less Is More, Even in Baseball

Rich Tucker
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Posted: Nov 08, 2010 5:15 PM
Less Is More, Even in Baseball

Professional entertainers know it’s a good policy to always leave an audience wanting more. Too bad major league baseball hasn’t learned that lesson.

A few years ago MLB expanded. Since it was adding teams it also split each league into three divisions instead of two. It added a “wildcard” playoff team, for the first time allowing a squad to make the playoffs even if it didn’t win its division.

The goal was a worthy one: to ensure tighter, more exciting playoff races. But the opposite happened.

This year there was essentially no pennant race in the American League at all. Texas raced out to an insurmountable lead in the West Division, Minnesota locked up the Central Division early on, and New York and Tampa ran away from everyone else in the East Division.

So even though there was some question about which team would finish first in the East, it really didn’t matter, since the second place team would get a wildcard. All four playoff positions were essentially set by mid-summer. In the National League, it was only because the Padres and Braves collapsed in September that there was any race at all. San Diego could have won the West and the Braves could have seized the wildcard by playing .500 baseball for the final month. Instead they raced backward in the standings and brought the wildcard contest down to the final game of the season.

Baseball’s response is the one that seems obvious: It wants to add more team to the postseason. But that would get things backward. The problem with adding more teams is that the playoffs are too long already.

Until the late 1960s each league had a single division. At the end of the season the champions of the American and National Leagues advanced to play the World Series. Even allowing for travel days, the Series would be wrapped up in fewer than ten days, while the weather was still spectacular in most of the country.

After expansion in 1969, the leagues added teams and split into two divisions, with the winners playing a best-of-five League Championship Series to determine which squads would meet for the championship. This added a week or so and pushed the World Series to mid-October. Eventually the LCS expanded to best-of-seven. Still plausible.

Today, with four teams in each league, there’s a third round of playoffs. A team may have to play as many as 19 games to win the championship, and the season sometimes stretches, as it did this year, into November.

Adding more playoff teams would only further devalue the playoffs. There’s a reverse supply-and-demand situation developing. The more there is of something, the less valuable it is. That’s why humans don’t put much value on water (even though we need it every day) but do treasure gold (even though it serves no useful purpose): water is plentiful and gold is scarce.

If we want to guarantee competitive regular season races, we should go back to the old two division format with no wildcards. After all, when there are more teams chasing fewer playoff positions, we’re more likely to witness closer races. In any event, we’d at least be keeping the focus on the 162-game regular season, which is by far the longest season in all of sports and deserves to be the center of attention.

Baseball shouldn’t follow the path blazed by other sports, which have expanded their playoffs in an attempt to boost sales. Consider hockey, which requires teams to play an 82 game regular season, but then allows 16 teams into its championship competition.

In 2010 the seventh- and eighth-place Eastern Conference regular season teams played for the right to go to the Stanley Cup finals. It was a triumph of the underdogs over the favorites, but should have enraged fans who shelled out thousands of dollars to watch regular season games that proved to be meaningless.

Professional basketball suffers from a similar problem: A long season, followed by an almost-as-lengthy playoff slate. Even college basketball is expanding its championship bracket, adding four teams to its “field of 64.”

It’s unclear how the new teams will be seeded or when they will play. But it’s unlikely that anything good will come of expanding the NCAA tournament field. Baseball should heed the lesson that less is more. Fans want to see their team make the playoffs, but we don’t want to see the playoffs expanded to include weaker teams. We want our favorite teams to improve and earn the playoff spots.

Congratulations to the world champion Giants, and good for them managing to wrap up the series before Election Day.

But in years to come, expansion would further water down the playoff field. Unless we want a Thanksgiving World Series (outdoors in Detroit? Cincinnati? Minneapolis?) it’s time to call a halt to the expansion trend.