Saturday, March 17, 2012

Everybody's a Winner

Let me say at the outset that I'm not a big sports fan. That's not to say I don't like to watch a good game of almost anything. It might be the Super Bowl, sudden death at the Masters or the last few minutes of an NBA playoff. I've also been known to tune in and catch a few minutes of a hockey game, a track and field meet or a diving competition. But I don't have a favorite team, play in a fantasy league or arrange my weekends to be in front of the set at game time. Yes, I know about Jeremy Lin, but who doesn't?

Still, I was intrigued to hear the news that baseball is expanding its playoff structure. Even if you're not an aficionado, you probably know the end result of those playoffs is the World Series, the biggest sporting event of October. But the mechanics of how they get to that point might be a little off your radar screen, so allow me to fill you in (I confess I had to read up on it in Wikipedia).

In the mid-nineties, Major League Baseball's two leagues, the National and the American, were reorganized into three divisions each, labeled the East, Central and West. To crown an overall winner, the process was fairly straightforward: those winning each division would duke it out to see who got to represent the league in the Fall Classic.

But you can't have three teams on the field at the same time. So, two possibilities: either someone would have to sit in the first round, or you have to add one to the fold. And so the idea of a Wild Card was adopted. To round out the field, a non-division-winning team, the one that had the next best record, landed a spot in the playoffs as well. That provided the needed fourth so that everybody gets to play one on one.

All well and good. But could it be better? After all, playoffs generate excitement, viewers and dollars. So what if there were more? As luck would have it, baseball got an unplanned for test-run this past September. For the first time in the 17-year history of the wild card, teams in both leagues were tied for the final playoff spot entering the final night of the regular season. Serendipitously, it was a one game playoff for which fans and sportswriters went wacky. And so the idea was planted: let's make the extraordinary ordinary, and institutionalize that particular sequence of events.

And so we have the new system. Starting this year, there will be a playoff before the playoffs. At the end of the regular season, 10 teams will still be kicking. You'll have the six winners from each of the three divisions in two leagues. Then the next two best teams in each league will square off to see gets the last spot. Is it a Wild Card Playoff? A Wild Card Championship? Or in a nod to pizza boxes everywhere, The Best of the Rest? You decide.

On the one hand, some might argue that this cheapens the playoffs: if more teams can make them, just how much does actually winning the division mean? After all, with this structure, fully 30% of the teams will be in the Championship Round. Still, that's more selective than other pro leagues: 12 of 32 make it in the NFL, and 16 of 30 advance in the NBA and NHL, a point that Commissioner Bud Selig was quick to trumpet: "This change increases the rewards of a division championship and allows two additional markets to experience playoff baseball each year, all while maintaining the most exclusive postseason in professional sports."

Is this an extension of what started in elementary school, where there are trophies given out for sixth place? After all, no one wants to be labeled a loser, so just make more winners. You can even argue that's what's happened in the Republican Primary, which has abandoned the former winner-take-all format, and changed to proportional representation, enabling the four remaining candidates to claim that they are still in the playoffs. I mean race.

But as we said before, playoffs equal excitement equal money. So what's to stop baseball from adding another playoff game, whereby the top three teams that didn't win their divisions challenge one another for the final spot? Of course, three is an uneven number, so they'll have to add a fourth team as well. It's safe to assume that all this means that by October of 2018 every team will be in the playoffs.

Every team, of course, except the Mets.


Marc Wollin of Bedford was at the NBA All-Star Game and had a blast. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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