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KEVIN BAXTER / ON BASEBALL

No reason to go wild with baseball's playoff system

Bud Selig wants to add a team in each league to the postseason, but the current format is the best in all major league sports and should be left alone.

April 30, 2011|By Kevin Baxter
  • Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's desire to see two more teams in the postseason could end up having a detrimental effect on the regular season.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's desire to see two… (Frank Franklin II / Associated…)

From St. Petersburg, Fla. — Bud Selig has been busy lately, what with trying to save the Dodgers and all. But that didn't stop the baseball commissioner from making another pronouncement of note last month.

"We're moving to expanding the playoffs," he said. "The more we've talked about it, I think we're moving inexorably to that."

What the commissioner would like to do is add an additional wild-card team to the postseason in each league beginning next season, lengthening the playoffs by creating an additional round. And it's not hard to figure out why: more playoff games mean more lucrative national telecasts Selig can sell to the networks.

Plus two more postseason berths figures to create playoff excitement in two more cities.

More, however, isn't always better, and in this case it could wind up being markedly worse.

Baseball has the most elite playoff structure of any major professional sport with only eight of its 30 teams qualifying for the postseason. Compare that to the NBA and NHL, where more than half the teams make the playoffs. Or the NFL, where 12 of 32 teams advance.

In each case, rewarding mediocrity hasn't made the playoffs more exciting. But it has rendered much of the regular season meaningless while making the postseason intolerably long.

And with the most demanding regular season in sports — a 162-game, six-month marathon — baseball would do well to make those games more important, not less so.

Players on the last two World Series champions, as well as several managers, expressed skepticism about the new proposal, which would likely include a first-round wild-card matchup of no more than three games. The winners would advance to a second round featuring the three division winners in each league, followed by the league championship series and the World Series

"It doesn't seem very fair, and personally I don't know where his head is at," the San Francisco Giants' Tim Lincecum told the Contra Costa Times. "Players like it the way it is. It's dog eat dog. … What if the [second] wild-card team is not deserving of getting in?"

"For a team like us, I don't like it," the New York Yankees' Mark Teixeira told the New York Daily News. "We battle all year long in a very tough division; if you win the division and have to have five or six days off before the start of the playoffs, or you win the wild card and still have to play another one- or three-game series just to get into the playoffs, it doesn't make much sense."

Nor does it make much sense to water down what have proven to be exciting pennant chases each fall.

Consider last season's National League race. The Atlanta Braves, Giants and San Diego Padres all entered the final day of the season unsure whether they'd be going to the playoffs or going home at the end of the day. And three times in the last four years the final postseason fields were determined in one-game playoffs the day after the regular season ended.

That's pretty exciting.

Selig has floated an expanded playoff field before but two factors have given the idea new momentum. The first was last year's American League East race. With the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays having already secured postseason berths, one as the division champion and the other as the league's wild card, both teams used the final games of the regular season as a tuneup for the playoffs.

But there's nothing to prevent that from happening under an expanded format. In fact, with more postseason berths available, it's almost certain more teams will clinch early, then coast into October.

The second factor driving Selig's proposal is his oft-repeated pledge to step down after the 2012 season. Although the commissioner has reigned over the most lucrative and progressive era in the sport's history — one that has included the addition of teams in Florida, Colorado and Arizona; unrivaled labor peace; drug testing; a 500% growth in revenue to a record $7 billion since 1995; and an international expansion that has included the quadrennial World Baseball Classic and regular-season games being played in Japan, Mexico and Puerto Rico — he still seems concerned about burnishing his legacy.

Expanded playoffs, Selig believes, could go a long way toward doing that by creating interest in new markets as well as an additional round of playoffs to offer to TBS, Fox and ESPN.

There's no guarantee that will happen and recent evidence suggests it won't. In 2008 and 2010, the World Series drew record-low ratings although one featured the Rays' first trip to the playoffs and the second ended with the Giants' first title since moving west from New York.

Despite all that, the players union says it is receptive to the idea of expanded playoffs, though union head Michael Weiner said the details would have to be negotiated as part of new collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires in December.

With any luck, that won't happen. Here's hoping the Dodgers keep Selig occupied until his retirement party starts, leaving him no time to fix something that isn't broke.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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