Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Wild Thing

I consider myself somewhat of a baseball traditionalist.  I despise the Designated Hitter, as early readers of this blog know.  I believe former great Dick Allen was right about Astro Turf when he said, "if a cow don't eat it, I don't want to play on it."  I find inter-league play to be an unnecessary gimmick.  And I worry that instant replay will become more intrusive.  But, despite my distrust of  most proposals to mess with the Great Game, I am not so rigid that I can't accept any change.  After all, without change, we'd have 16 teams made up of all white players using tiny gloves and a mushy ball. 

Until the early 1960s, there were 16 teams, 8 in each league.  The season was 154 games long, and the teams that won the American League and National League pennants played each other in the World Series.  Then, beginning in 1961, new teams were gradually added and the regular season expanded to 162 games.  By 1969, there were 24 teams.  Each league was split into two divisions with six teams each and a round of playoffs was added with the division winners playing each other to determine who would play in the World Series.  This seemed to make sense since without dividing the 12-team leagues in half, there would be too many teams dwelling at the bottom half of the standings with no chance of climbing to the top.

In 1994, when the teams were split into three divisions in each league and the playoffs added a wild card -- a team with the next best record after the division winners -- it seemed that things had gone too far.  It would only be a matter of time before baseball became like the NBA, with endless rounds of playoffs that made the regular season meaningless.  But I was wrong.  There are now 30 teams in the two leagues, and the 3-division split and wild card has made for some very exciting races with teams that otherwise would have been eliminated from post-season play far earlier in the season.  The advent of the wild card has, thus, actually made the regular season more meaningful.

The problem with the wild card is that it gives a team that doesn't win its division the same chance in the post season as the other playoff teams.  The way it works now is that the wild card simply becomes one of four playoff teams in each league.  This doesn't seem fair to the other three teams who gain no real advantage for winning their respective divisions.  It also gives two teams battling for the division title less incentive to fight if out to the last game if one of them will get the wild card berth anyway.  So, while the wild card gives many more teams a stake in the regular season, it also has the potential as the season winds down, when the games should be most exciting, to undermine the pennant races.   

This is why I am actually in favor of the proposal to expand the playoffs.  The plan would be to include two wild card teams instead of one in each league, with each league's wild cards meeting in a playoff with the winner then joining the other playoff teams in the next round.  This system would give the division winners a decided advantage over the wild card teams while still giving other teams a chance at becoming the wild card and a shot at post season glory. Such a plan would only work, however, if the regular season is compressed -- through a shorter pre-season, scheduled double headers, reduction or elimination of interleague games - so that baseball is not being played in the frigid cold in November.

One plan that won't work, but is reportedly being considered, is moving a National League team to the American League, so each league has 15 teams, getting rid of divisions altogether, and having five teams in each league in the playoffs.  The most glaring problem with this scenario is that with an odd number of teams in each league, there would have to be one American League team playing a National League team throughout the season.  Now there are two brief intervals during the year with inter-league play, which is annoying enough.  As Keith Olbermann said in lambasting this plan, perpetual inter-league play would "shatter the concepts of the American and National Leagues as we know them."

Inter-league play dilutes some of the mystique of the All Star Game and World Series, which used to be the only times when players in each league played each other.  It forces National League teams to use a designated hitter when the AL team is at home, and forces American League pitchers who never otherwise hit to do so when the NL team hosts.  And since not all teams can play each other, it gives an arbitrary and unfair advantage to teams who get to play lesser teams in the other league. 

Another option would be to return to having 16 teams, 8 in each league, like the Old Days.  That might not be so bad if we could keep the other changes that have made the game so great, while getting rid of the gimmicks.