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Baseball's Silly Season

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  • Baseball's Silly Season

    Published: October 22, 2005
    Saugerties, N.Y.

    NOW it begins, the Wallflower World Series. The Chicago White Sox hadn't made it to the big dance in 46 years and the Houston Astros have never been here. It is warming to know that one of these teams will join last year's champs, the Boston Red Sox, in the ranks of the formerly pitiable. Maybe the pale hose will win and remove The Curse of Shoeless Joe that many South Siders feel has denied them a championship since 1917. But the smart money is on the Astros, because second-rate teams, also known as wild cards, have won the last three titles.

    Once upon a time, the glory of our national game was the length of its season, which rewarded tortoises, foiled hares and culminated in a climactic contest between two clubs that had not faced each other (or any team in the opponent's league) all year. Even the splitting of the American and National Leagues into two divisions each in 1969, and the concurrent creation of the League Championship Series between the divisional winners, preserved the logical and linear progress of the long season.

    Today, however, with interleague play, a wild-card system (in which three divisional winners and one second-place team in each league make the postseason), unbalanced scheduling that heavily favors intradivisional contests, and a dice-rattlingly short best-of-five opening playoff round, baseball has embraced randomness.

    The results: In 2001, the Seattle Mariners, winners of a record-tying 116 regular-season games, watched the World Series on television; the 2002 finale consisted of two wild cards, the Anaheim Angels and San Francisco Giants; the Florida Marlins in their brief existence have won two World Series yet no divisional title; the Atlanta Braves' 14 consecutive divisional titles have netted them one world championship. What's going on here?

    One may marvel at the mass hypnosis by which Major League Baseball apparently maintains public interest in meaningless pennant races until the final days, and the fans' complacent acceptance of a second-place finisher as a worthy contestant for postseason honors. Indeed, the league's television-inspired name for its current Web contest, "Postseason 2005 Survivor," might be a better name for the actual games than World Series. The team that finishes strong and squeaks into the playoffs may not have been the better team over the long haul, but it may well be the fittest to compete in October. Wealthier teams can give the spigot another turn after the All-Star Game, pillaging noncontending rivals as if they were farm clubs.

    Curmudgeonly rant aside, I am not proposing that baseball return to antique models for determining champions (the 1887 World Series was a 15-game affair; nine-game World Series were played as late as 1921). The 12-team postseason of professional football and the 16-team tournaments in hockey and basketball may mock reason, but they do provide excitement and kindle hope for more cities and more fans than did the old, rational plan for baseball. To accept the 21st century is to embrace irrationality.

    After all, sport tends to mirror society's values. When spectator sports began in this country in the 1820's, it was not baseball but horse racing that symbolized the age. The purse in a stakes match went to the horse that won two of three heats, all run on the same day (the steadfast steed Eclipse was the sports hero of the day). Endurance was what mattered: in a horse, in a man, in a team, in a nation.

    Baseball was also the sport that tracked the pageant of the seasons from planting to harvest, and perhaps to this day fans still feel its archaic rhythms. But America is no longer agrarian, and as a society we long ago began to prize speed over stamina. Football and basketball now loom larger than our so-called national pastime, as does Nascar.

    And baseball's efforts to adapt to changing times have tended to imperil its future. Bowie Kuhn, then the commissioner, went hatless and coatless to a televised night game in the 1971 World Series and proclaimed himself comfy, seemingly oblivious that he was freezing out children who couldn't stay up late to watch. Youngsters have been not watching ever since.

    What to do? We can't go back to two divisions in each league because that would send 26 teams home at the end of September, unacceptable for a sport struggling to broaden its fandom. The answer in my view is, despite recent rumblings about "contracting" two clubs into vapor, to expand baseball to 32 teams. With four leagues of eight teams each or (as the commissioner's office no doubt would prefer) eight circuits of four teams each, we could return to the 154-game balanced schedule, in which every team plays each of seven rivals 22 times, that was gospel before 1961. Revenue from the eight missing regular-season games could be made up in a number of ways, including making all three rounds of playoffs run to seven games.

    The wild card is as attached to the unbalanced schedule as the hip bone is connected to the leg bone. Balance the schedule and the number of teams in each league, and only franchises that have actually won something from April through September will get to play in October.

    John Thorn is the author of "Total Baseball" and the forthcoming "Baseball in the Garden of Eden."


    Mr. G

  • #2
    That is a good piece, Mr. G.