Tom Verducci at SI.com posted an argument for baseball adding a second wild card team and having the two wild cards play a win-or-go-home playoff game at the end of the regular season. The thesis of his argument is that baseball needs to do more to ‘fix’ its September calendar, which (according to Verducci) rarely contains drama and too easily gets overwhelmed by the start of football season.
I agree with aspects of his essay. Imagining his system, Verducci makes the strongest argument for his idea:
The Yankees and Rays are in a real race. Now it’s much more important to win your division than the wild card, in which you could get knocked out of the playoffs with one game. It keeps meaning in September games for runaway leaders.
Of course, Texas’s 7-game lead is not seriously challenged by any other team in their division, so this format won’t help all runaway leaders play meaningful games in September.
Other aspects of Verducci’s article are worrisome, however. Take this quote:
Every NFL game has the feeling of being self-contained, with the stand-alone quality of say a movie as opposed to the serial quality of a baseball series. Baseball games rise to that level of urgency when they are “ultimate” games.
Many baseball fans and writers (this one included) have an inferiority complex in relation to football. Football is glamorous, sexy, arrogant, and made-for-television. Yet one of the best parts of baseball is the 162-game schedule, the grind of the season. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Photo finishes are exciting, sure, but they are much more exciting when they happen at the end of a marathon. Baseball will never be like football, and we shouldn’t change our game to resemble football for the sake of trying to appease football fans. Please baseball fans first.
Verducci, as a serious baseball fan, is probably quite interested in this September’s games. Seven of the Yankees’ last 20 games are against the Rays. Atlanta and Philadelphia have been jockeying for first place for a month, and with Philly, Atlanta, San Diego, San Francisco, Colorado, and St. Louis all within 6 games of each other, winning the NL East is very important indeed. San Diego’s collapse has suddenly made the NL West a 3-team race. All this is exciting to any fan who follows the baseball season, or is a fan of any of these teams. And the notion that the Wild Card makes winning a division less meaningful? Ask the 22 teams going home in October if winning the division is meaningful.
The real question here is money, as it usually is with high-level baseball decisions these days. How much does baseball want to tailor itself to casual fans? Would baseball tamper with aspects of the game cherished by season ticket holders in favor of the few million disinterested households who would watch an out-of-market elimination playoff game? From which group does baseball stand to make more money?
Verducci frames his argument with numbers about baseball’s increased TV numbers for the recent elimination playoff games. In this particular instance, I agree with the proposal to “revamp” baseball’s playoffs. As long as the extra game did not push the playoffs irretrievably into November, I’m for it. But we baseball fans who view ourselves as guardians of, and witnesses to, a hallowed sport should analyze our motivations whenever we consider changing the game’s constitution. Are we improving the game for ourselves? Or are we sacrificing our values in trying to please an ambivalent football audience whom we will never truly satisfy?