MLB Gets the Elevator, Washington Baseball Fans Get the Shaft–Again
The playoff season looms in a scant two weeks and ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the rest of the sports media are abuzz with September pennant race fever. That very special form of madness has lain dormant all these many years in Washington, DC. but it is spreading quickly. Yet in this city where October surprises are not uncommon, there is one waiting for Nationals fans as they begin to hoot and holler for for their first playoff baseball in almost 80 years.
The October Surprise is the return to a badly flawed playoff format that allows the team with the worst record to host the first playoff games of the five-game Divisional Series in each league. It is a format that was dropped after 1997, but in August, with the Nationals looking like a good bet to make the playoffs for the first time in 79 years, the format for the past 14 years was dropped.
Since 1997 the Divisional Series in both leagues have followed a familiar 2-2-1 format. For 2012, baseball will return to a 2-3 format. Most recently the team with the best record hosted the first two games and the final game of the five game series. It is a significant advantage–although not as significant as one might think–that recognizes the superior performance of one team during the long regular season. It is an advantage that is frequently overcome, most recently by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 who fought their way past the home field advantage of both the Phillies and Brewers to the World Series.
In all truth it is too early to complain about an advantage that has been neither gained nor lost by anyone as yet. The news that we would not host the first games, however, is just beginning to sink in around Washington. The full implication has not been speculated out loud. But if the National maintain the best record in baseball, their much maligned fan base will not be allowed to watch their first playoff games in almost eight decades behind the patriotic bunting of Nationals Park.
IF the playoffs were held today, the National League Wild Card team–after a one-game shootout–would host the first two games against Washington. If Atlanta were to win the Wild Card, the NLDS would begin at Turner Field and Washington fans would watch their first playoff baseball on TV. Only time will tell how this all works out, but there is a huge downside risk.
During the long regular season, the statistics work their magic and the home teams always win more often than the visiting teams over the course of the 162-games. Every betting theory from Las Vegas to Atlantic City is founded on that principle that the house has the advantage and you don’t bet against the home team. But one Harvard mathematician calculated the statistical advantage of the home-field advantage over a five game series at only 51.3 percent. In a shortened series the home field advantage is almost nonexistent. It easily overcome and frequently is.
However, there is no corresponding analysis as to whether that advantage disappears in a 2-3 format. But regardless whether the advantage is actually lost or only diminished, the real issue is the symbolic significance of playing not only the first game, but the first TWO games on the home field of the team with the lesser record.
The REAL rub is that in a 2-3 format, the team with the best record, that has fought all season for the advantage could conceivably play only a single game before the home crowd if they are swept in three cruel games.
A very magical season where the Nationals have won more games than any other team not only in the National League but also in baseball, could end after Washington has hosted only a single game in front of the home fans. One game at Nationals Park and boom!! Gone!! And a long cold winter with only page after page of Stephen Strasburg “what ifs” to feed the hot stove.
Perhaps the real question is whether it takes an obsessive-compulsive to worry about such things? Or does it take a paranoid to always see the Commissioner’s Office conspiring against one’s home team. Say what you like on the former, but Bud Selig has done no favors for Washington other than allowing a home-grown owner to buy the team and that he did only grudgingly. He stiffed his Midwest home-boy, Jeff Smulyan, only because the Lerners had more money than the god and relatively speaking Smulyan had only chump change. The very litigious Lerner family may well have threatened Selig had he allowed an offer of less money to win the day back when the Nationals franchise was being auctioned off.
The Commissioner’s Office has said the 2-3 format was adopted again to eliminate a single travel day. Getting the World Series done before the first snow has always been front and center for the Commissioner’s Office.
Speaking of home field advantage, the All-Star Game has yet to be played in Washington last time I looked. Only one other major league team has had to wait as long as the Nationals. Washington last hosted the All-Star Game in 1969–an affair to remember when not only the current All-Stars were selected in fan voting, but also those from the beginning of the game were recognized in a special event. It was something special, something befitting the Nation’s Capital.
The Mets hosted the game in 1962 and they had the longest hiatus without the game other than Washington, but that will be remedied when Citi Field hosts the game next summer.
Washington has a long and storied past as a city that has been betrayed by the baseball establishment. We carry not only the banner of fans screwed by MLB, Inc twice–once for the move to Minnesota and once for the move to Texax. But we can also carry the banner for all of those Montreal fans who were screwed by MLB, Inc after they let Jeffrey Loria in through the back door for that special kind of business that always comes through the back door.
So bring on whatever format you got, Bud. We are going to be here in playoff baseball for the long haul. It won’t be seventy-nine years this time. Whether we win the World Series or are gone in sixty seconds, we will be back next year. And that is something you can bet on.