Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Postseason Fatigue Redux: There's GOT to be another way!

One of several colorful denizens resident here at Ice Station Shenandoah is a big "CSI" fan, and so we hear the Who's "Who Are You"-- as bracing a song about self-criticism as has ever been penned-- blasting out of the adjoining anteroom at regular intervals. The TV theme, of course, never gets around to Roger Daltrey's epic snarl of the biting Pete Townshend lyric that graces our title today, but every time we dwell on this subject-- which, we'll admit, is far too often-- that's the theme which resonates most clearly.

The Super Bowl will be played this Sunday, February 2. The NFL postseason began on Saturday, January 4, and it is scheduled to conclude 29 days later, which also accounts for an idle week designed to whip up hysteria for the grand finale. It all makes eminent sense. There are only sixteen games in the regular season, after all.  An extended postseason, with 11 total games, each a winner-take-all proposition, builds tension from week to week most appropriately.

Meanwhile, the 2013 baseball regular season ended on Sunday, September 29. The final game of the postseason, Game Six of the World Series, was played on Wednesday, October 30, and had the Cardinals forced Game Seven, the baseball postseason would have lasted for 31 days. There were 38 games played out of a possible 43. Forty-three.

Can we all agree this is just too doggone many games over too doggone long a time?

Though it may seem counter-intuitive to some, to us it appears obvious that the longer the regular season, and the greater the weight of those regular season games, the shorter the postseason ought to be. You follow 162 games with 43 more, and you've got a seemingly endless parade of games, series, and events that, while individually exciting and captivating as only baseball games can be, merge together into an almost indistinguishable continuum. Even we, as Giants fans celebrating two unprecedented World Championships in three years after five decades of postseason ennui, have to go back and check the record on occasion: was that 14-K performance in the NLDS or the NLCS? Which must-win game did Vogelsong win? Who did what, when?  Et cetera.

Now, we grant that when baseball expanded into a real postseason in 1969, with five-game league championship series preceding the World Series, it just made sense.  Divisions were a necessity with 12-team leagues, and with only two teams per league able to qualify, the postseason was still an Everest-like accomplishment. Indeed, we've always rated winning the division in modern times as fully equal to winning the pennant in the old days, and that's the term we use without hesitation: "The Giants won the pennant yesterday, clinching the NL West with three games to spare."

But when the leagues expanded to three divisions and a wild-card in 1995-- ah, that was the time when someone ought to have thought outside the box! Adding yet another imitative series simply diluted the product. One example: we're not big fans of all-time or career records-- wins and losses are the currency we prefer to spend-- but the proliferation of exaggerated "postseason records" has taken on a semi-ridiculous tone. We remember when Mickey Mantle broke Babe Ruth's record for World Series home runs. Does anyone know who the all-time leader is for "post-season some runs" today? (We suspect Albert Pujols, but we don't know-- and worse, we don't care. And worse than that, we suspect you don't know or care, either.)

Baseball games are a good thing! But 43 postseason baseball games are too much of a good thing.

People, it can be changed, and we're about to show you how it can be changed.

First of all, no one need, nor dare they, tamper with the World Series. The best-of-seven showdown has been baseball's premier event since 1903, and it ought to remain that way.

We propose to make it even more so. We propose to make it unique.

That means no more division series. No more league championship series. No more preliminary series of any kind. Only one Series. The World Series. Are you all ready for that?

What happens-- what happens--  if we ditch the preliminary series format altogether, and go to a-- wait for it-- a tournament, similar to that of the College World Series? (Oh, the humanity! There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!)

Seriously-- how would that play out? Not in your imaginations or fears, but in real life?  Would the players like it? Would the fans like it? Could it be done at all without prompting conniption fits among self-proclaimed "traditionalists" from Key West to Seattle? (Probably not.)  But-- could it be done?

Sure it could. The LDS and LCS were never "traditional" anyway-- they were just copies of the original, nothing but unimaginative add-ons. It's not tradition holding them in place, it's inertia. What's more traditional than leaving the venerable World Series alone and unique-- the only Series? Changing how the teams qualify-- is that any more revolutionary than divisional play? Or wild-card teams?

Okay, breathe into the paper bag. Y'all will be OK in a minute. There, that's better. Now. Here's how it might work...

We envision the same post-season qualification we have now-- three division winners and two wild cards. (We may not like the wild-card on principle, but two wild-card teams, forced to play a single cut-the-deck elimination game, are immeasurably better than one.)  The wild-card teams would play their single "showdown" game as they do now. The four survivors would then enter a league championship tournament, either double-elimination or triple-elimination, with the winner moving on to the World Series.

How to handle logistics? Get creative!  Pick one ballpark to host the league championship tournament for this year, and then rotate through the entire league year by year. The first American League tournament might be played in, say, Seattle-- to be followed by Oakland, then Anaheim, then Arlington, moving west to east. The NL might inaugurate in Miami, with Atlanta, Washington, and Philadelphia following, moving east to west. Sure, one team might find itself playing on its home field in the tournament. (It could eventually happen in the Super Bowl, too.)  That's not a show-stopper; it's a story within a story.  The media will love it.

The tournaments kick off on Thursday and Friday following the end of the regular season. This year, that would be Thursday, October 2, and Friday, October 3.  The top seed team gets to choose which day they want to open on, and whether they want to be home or visitor for each game. In that first round, one game for each league is played on Thursday, and the others on Friday.

Saturday introduces the winners' bracket and the losers' bracket, with a full day, four games, two in each park, day and night split-bill doubleheaders. Can you feel the excitement starting to build?

If it's a double-elimination format, Saturday also witnesses the first team's elimination from each league tournament. The winners' bracket winner gets a bye on Sunday as the other two teams meet to eliminate the loser. The two finalists play on Monday, and, if necessary, again on Tuesday. Maximum seven games, minimum six games, over six days. The World Series starts on Thursday, October 9 (or perhaps on Saturday the 11th), and will conclude no later than October 19.

A triple-elimination tournament is more complicated, of course. It runs a minimum nine games and a maximum eleven games, but will still conclude no later than Friday, October 10-- and might conclude even sooner if some games past the second round are played as split-bill doubleheaders. Even if the start of the World Series is pushed back to Tuesday, October 14, the whole enchilada still wraps up no later than October 22.

And it would be more exciting! There's no question about it!  Four teams congregating in the same town on the same field, like a traveling baseball circus. We believe that after just one year of trying it this way, everyone would be wondering why we hadn't done it sooner.  

Objections? Sure...

"Teams are set up all year to play short series! This would be disruptive!" Booshwah. First of all, the existing postseason format, with an uneven number of games, is already disruptive to pitching assignments and days of rest; the whole topic is practically a discussion board in itself each October as managers juggle their starters in ways they never had to during the stately pace of the regular season. And for Pete's sake, it is a short series anyway-- albeit against a variety of teams instead of one team.

"What about the home-field fans who might miss their team's first playoff appearance in two decades?" Now, that is a concern, and a good one. We're not certain all fans would share the same level of concern, especially those whose teams make the postseason year in and year out. But yes-- suppose the Kansas City Royals win the division for the first time in 29 years, and their first postseason games are held in Seattle? You can be sure that even if the Royals were to be swept in the ALDS, Kauffman Stadium would be overflowing, win or lose. And what if, say, the long-suffering Toronto Blue Jays qualify the year the tournament is held in Detroit-- and then miss the postseason the following year when it finally comes to the Skydome?

Yes, there are inevitable drawbacks to this, or any, new idea. But while such a crazy revolutionary proposal is bound to disappoint some teams and some fans at some times, overall we believe it would be good for baseball. And nowadays the fans seem to be the only ones concerned about what's good for baseball, and a dwindling number at that.

So we toss our wack-job idea out there into the vapor and ask you to make of it what you will. Ignore it, condemn it, make jokes about it, whatever your fancy.

But whether it's this way, that way, or the other way, we all know: there's got to be a better way.  

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