Fixing the Fall Classic
Baseball’s post-season starts in mere days, which means that so will the discussion concerning the waning interest in baseball’s post-season. Bud Selig’s answer is to give the public more of what it already finds dull. Adding a best two out of three wild-card round is most definitely déjà vu all over again. We do not need another playoff series, unless the Baseball Powers That Be think that the 7th game of the World Series would be more widely watched if it immediately followed the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
A second solution that has been proposed is to make the two wild-card teams engage in a single play-in game, the thinking being that such a dramatic contest would boost television ratings. There was genuine excitement when the Twins played the Tigers in 2009 for the right to enter the post-season fray. It was not, however, just because the game was a win or go home contest. A great deal of the excitement came from the fact that the outcome of that game determined the setup of the next day’s games. In other words, today determined tomorrow.
If Major League Baseball wants to truly embrace this kind of post-season excitement, then it should forget a one-game play-in and put its arms around a World Series tournament à la the College World Series. Create two 15-team leagues, and the top five teams will play in their league’s respective tournaments. Make it a triple elimination and give the pennant winners a bye until the other teams have already played two games each and then continually give the champs the most favorable matchup based on tournament record or seeding. This will restore some value to actually winning the league championship, not the least of which would be having two extra days in which to align one’s pitching staff.
Major League Baseball might want to note that there is increasing interest in the College World Series, and for the host city of Omaha, Nebraska, the CWS is a financial boon. MLB should pair National League and American League cities, which will function as hosts for their respective league’s tournaments. Baseball’s money men should consider the merchandising and the ticket packages that can be created for fans who want to attend a certain number of AL games in, say, Baltimore’s Camden Yards, as well as a certain number of NL games in Washington’s Nationals’ Park. They better consider what such an idea would do for the television ratings, too. A World Series tournament would not only increase the number of win or go home games; it would also determine the next day’s schedule, thereby creating a compelling reason to watch each and every game.
The main problem with baseball’s current playoff system—and one that will only be exacerbated by adding another round—is that they last so long and are so interrupted by off-days that no real dramatic flow can ever be sustained. An overlooked, but important aspect as to why the post-season once captured the attention of the entire nation was that it might only take as few as 5 days to complete while the maximum time was a mere 9 days. Of course, we used to call that type of “post season” the “World Series.” Now, with so many playoff series, “post season” looks quite a bit like the regular season. Hence, there’s nothing compelling about it. The regular season is a joy because it meanders through the summer, filled with funny stories, streaks, odd plays, and weird box scores. It’s not compelling, it’s relaxing. Come autumn, however, it’s time to stop wandering and get to where we need to go.
The tournaments would be concluded in 8 to 10 days, depending on how they play out, with the respective winners facing each other in a traditional, home-and-home, frost-free World Series in the middle of October.
I leave it to the bracketologists to determine the best way to set up the tournament progression. I know that there are other aspects of a tournament that would require some logistical planning, such as sharing locker rooms when you have four different teams per day playing in the same ballpark, but let’s face it—Bud Selig would insist that his grandmother share a locker room with the Unabomber if that would increase television ratings, so such details can be arranged.
Football games are appealing not only to fans, but to the average television viewer because they are set pieces, self-contained dramas, like the movie of the week. A World Series tournament would be baseball’s version of the mini-series. You have to tune in every night (and day) because you don’t want to miss any of the twists and turns, which you can track over the course of 10 days. The average viewer won’t stay tuned for twists and turns that take 30 days to unfold and include multiple travel days and cutaway shots of fans in Northern ballparks whose gloves are fur-lined. rather than oiled and laced. This latter element is underappreciated, for as any writer knows, the setting does contribute to the mood of the story. (Hence, Dostoevsky never set one of his novels in Miami.) The World Series then becomes Part II of the mini-series, and the entire event is concluded in three weeks.
All that’s needed to enact this idea is to transfer one current NL team to the AL and to do away with divisions all together. Well, that and a dose of creativity mixed with a dash of common sense. If the World Series Tournaments come to fruition, post-season ratings, revenue, and interest will rise, perhaps to the point at which autumn baseball will once again grip the nation’s attention.