In many ways, I think of myself as a baseball purist. I have serious reservations about designated hitters. I have a firm belief that Nolan Ryan is the only one who understands that regardless of what anyone says, there is nothing magical about that 100th pitch. Just get out there and throw, divas! The most exciting play in the game, for me, is watching a team react to a double-steal bunt. So with the recent announcement that MLB will be expanding its playoffs, I found myself debating along with millions of other fans whether or not this was a good decision for the sport.
On one hand, part of what has made baseball’s playoffs impressive is the level of difficulty it takes to get there. Unlike football or basketball (hockey doesn’t count because I’m pretty sure they let pee-wee teams into their playoffs until recently), where half of the teams routinely win their division and go to the playoffs, baseball has always been ruthless about who gets in. They play by far the most games, grinding out victories for months, yet every year there is a team with ninety wins who is left watching from home.
As maddening as it could be for a fan, it’s also pretty cool. However, this system has always been a double-edged sword, especially in more recent decades, as ballooning payrolls have created a more distinct “class system” among MLB teams. While we all have every right to moan when a 7-9 team makes the NFL playoffs, the level of parity in football is unmatched in other sports. The Pittsburgh Pirates, in all likelihood, will not make the playoffs in 2012. They’re simply not very good. In most sports, it’s pretty easy to tell which teams will probably be good. In baseball, more so than the other sports, it’s easy to tell, with some certainty, which teams are going to be bad.
Baseball’s playoff structure, while doing a good job of getting the best teams in, has gotten stale. Nationally, ratings have been in steady decline and there is a general resentment/frustration with the same teams getting in every year (with the occasional oddball like those pesky Rays). But as I lamented in my MLB Reboot pieces, baseball as an entity is very, very, very painfully stubborn. And I am too. I liked the old system and my initial reaction was trepidation. If they’re not going to go with the widespread change I call for, I’m not one for tinkering.
But that’s why we shouldn’t rush to judgment. The more I read about and think over this change, the more I like it. Even as I write this piece, I realize that no, the current Wild Card system is not fair. The Wild Card is a ‘bonus’ spot. They did not win a division. Therefore, common-sensically (a lethal combination of hyphenating and making up words), making the Wild Card teams win an additional game to ‘deserve’ their advancement seems not only reasonable, but also logical. Of course, the MLB will play up the drama of adding a built-in one-game playoff and there is truth in that notion. But this decision ripples through baseball on a much broader scale for us as fans. Maybe the Nationals will make a huge jump this year and sneak into a one-game playoff for the Wild Card. Perhaps the new rule will jumpstart the Chicago Cubs (laughable). As a Red Sox fan, though, this new system means only one thing: now we have to worry about those darn Blue Jays too.