Expanded playoffs are coming to a high-definition television near you. The rumbling up the tracks is getting louder. The hints from the Commissioner's Office are dropping like snowflakes.
If it is as inevitable as it seems -- understanding that the best choice, by far, still remains no expansion -- then consider this a plea.
|Charlie Manuel on expansion: 'Until somebody shows me what's beneficial or better, I'd say I like it the way it sets up now.' (Getty Images)|
A one-game, winner-moves-on wild-card format.
Yes, this runs contrary to every bit of conventional wisdom in baseball, which calls for longer series formats because that is a truer test for each team.
But expanded playoffs run contrary to the test of a 162-game season, too.
So the conversation, already off-kilter in the wrong direction, begins from there.
Make the wild-card round a one-game event, and it accomplishes three things right out of the gate:
• It provides the instant drama of a Game 7-type atmosphere.
• It awards division winners an advantage they deserve: The wild-card entrant would be handicapped by playing that one game and having to burn through some extra pitching.
• It would not delay the opening of the Division Series, which currently starts three days after the close of the regular season, anyway. The one-game wild-card playoff could be played the day after the season ends, just as the one-game divisional playoffs have been.
Again, this is not a pom-pom waving cheer in favor of more playoff teams, because it's pretty clear what's at issue here: A naked grab at more television money, and increasing the odds of both the Red Sox and the Yankees appearing in the postseason each October.
Be still, my heart.
More than studying expanded playoffs, the most constructive use of baseball's time would be looking long-term and figuring out ways to grow interest in the small- and middle-market franchises, which in turn would strongly increase the overall health of the game for the next generation.
Take San Diego, for example. Petco Park opened in 2004, and in seven short years, Padres fans already have discovered that the team can afford neither a star player who signed long-term at a club-friendly discount because he wanted to stay in town (Jake Peavy), nor a star player who was headed for the market-value pastures of free agency (Adrian Gonzalez).
So what, again, was the point of the new ballpark?
Despite record-setting revenues over the last decade, the game eventually is going to shrink if it continues to shove the Yankees and Red Sox down everyone's throat at the expense of giving fans in Kansas City, Pittsburgh and San Diego -- and other outposts -- competent ownership or an economic structure in which they can compete more than once or twice a decade (or, in the cases of Kansas City and Pittsburgh, more than once or twice every three decades).
The way to do this is not through the short-term gimmick of expanded playoffs, which will erode the integrity of the regular season and essentially wave empty calories at baseball's homeless in October crowd.
"I don't think anybody's in favor of having a set-up where you have 16 teams making the playoffs, or 14 teams make the playoffs," Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a member of Commissioner Bud Selig's committee to review on-field matters that is currently studying the issue, said at the Winter Meetings in Florida earlier this month.
On the other hand, Scioscia said, "there has to be a balance of having 162 games mean more than just seeding, like it does in some other sports, with ... the competitiveness of giving more teams more room to make the playoffs -- or try to get into the playoffs."
That last part is the sound of the wind picking up as the expanded-playoffs snowfall begins in earnest.
"My opinion, I'm always open for improvement of things that I think [are] better," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who is not a member of Selig's committee. "But when I look at it, the season's already 162 games, and ... time-wise, the season gets real long.
"I think if we start playing around Thanksgiving, it would be like going back to Japan and playing."
As a player, Manuel spent six seasons in Japan with the Yakult Swallows and the Kintetsu Buffaloes.
"I'd get in the World Series in Japan, and it wasn't like I didn't want to get in it, but at the same time, we'd take a week or two off and all you do is go run, play and talk to the media," Manuel said. "It's more of a show.
"All of a sudden you look up and I was getting home after Thanksgiving. And I was going back over there in January.
"That's kind of what we're going to get into. The longer the seasons goes, we're going to be playing year round."
That's the single most pressing issue when looking at expanded playoffs. The calendar. The last two World Series have extended into November. Another postseason expansion or two and Santa Claus is going to be throwing the ceremonial first pitch before Game 7 of the World Series.
That, and the myriad off days throughout. One team -- or both -- taking nearly a week off before the World Series sabotages both timing and rhythm. We have not had a seven-game World Series since 2002, and six of the past seven Fall Classics have either resulted in four-game sweeps or five-game blowouts.
That's a lot of fall, and not much classic.
It's impossible not to conclude that too many days off, along with overtaxed pitching, have combined to dilute the World Series.
Now, to that, add another wild-card team and make it even a two-out-of-three series, and now each division winner probably will get a minimum of four days off after the regular season before starting the playoffs.
That's why, if this is a fait accompli, a one gamer between wild-card teams by far makes the most sense.
As for the eventual carping from a team complaining about threading its way through the 162-game schedule only to reach a point where it is eliminated from the playoffs after just one loss, there is a very simple reply that makes all the sense in the world:
Win your division.
It's that simple. And that obvious.
Do that, and you won't face a one-game elimination.
Any more than this -- heck, possibly even with this -- and baseball seriously risks cheapening one of its greatest assets: A tight postseason after a very meaningful regular season.
"Until somebody shows me what's beneficial or better," the Phillies Manuel said, "I'd say I like it more the way it sets up now."