Wild Goose Chase
Issue   |   Tue, 09/25/2012 - 22:56

When I first heard, sometime last November, that Major League Baseball would be going to a 10-team playoff format for the 2012 season, I wasn’t happy. There they go, I thought, making a mockery of the only game with any remaining semblance of tradition. I guess that’s how the hardcore purists must have felt back in the late 60s when — gasp — baseball began holding the League Championship Series instead of going straight to the World Series. Still, my inner cynic went wild at this patently scandalous move by the league office, and I swore I was finally done with baseball for good.

Yeah, right. Trying to keep me away from baseball is almost as impossible as actually trying to eat a full piece of Val’s Jamaican Jerk chicken. Not only did I faithfully continue to follow baseball, even as my favorite team was having its worst season since its city had a mayor who could actually speak English, but, as I write this, I have fully warmed up to the impending reality of the 10-team playoff.

Why? Because, in its first year of existence, the new format has already given deserving teams a chance that otherwise wouldn’t have had one. The key word here is “deserving.” We’re not talking about teams that will be squeaking into the playoffs with a record just over .500.

OK, maybe we are: the Cardinals (82-71) currently hold the NL’s second Wild Card spot by four games, and, given their recent history, they’ll probably find some improbable way to reach and win the World Series.

But I was referring more to the three-way race among the Yankees, Orioles and Athletics, which is one of the most exciting and refreshing in years.

Barring a near-impossibility, there will be playoff baseball in Baltimore for the first time since 1997 (back when Fenway Park was just another place my parents wanted to drag me).

Once the big-market home of a perennial contender, the city has descended into baseball obscurity over the past decade, but, with the help of Dan Duquette ’80, the Birds (87-65) are back in October. And let’s not forget about the A’s (86-66), who, after the glory of the “Moneyball” years faded, have not made the playoffs in five seasons.

Under the old system, one of these two very good teams would probably be going home in about a week.

Which brings me to my next point: might one of them basically be going home anyway?

The catch-22 of the new format is that the two Wild Card teams in each league will face off in a one-game playoff, an absurdly small sample size compared to the length of baseball’s regular season. This is the part that drove me crazy at first; I conjured up some nightmare scenario in which my beloved Red Sox, having just won 98 games, would be tragically knocked out of the playoffs by the likes of the 84-win Minnesota Twins.

Fortunately, at least for 2012, my premonition was inaccurate in more ways than one. A one-game playoff between two very good teams, such as the A’s and Orioles, actually has the potential to be more exciting than ludicrous; even in the National League, the win disparity between (presumably) the Braves and Cardinals won’t be so egregious as to make the game unwatchable.

There’s another bonus here, too: the one-game playoff format selects for the team with the best ace. Most real (cough!) baseball fans would agree that watching a great pitcher go to work in a big game is…well, it just doesn’t get any better. And, of course, if that team wins the one-game playoff, chances are that ace will get to pitch again under the bright lights of October, which has further potential to increase interest in (and, ultimately, revenue generated from) the playoffs.

Much as I’m loath to compare baseball to other sports, I think it’s also worth a look at the playoff formats of the NFL, NBA and NHL. The NBA and the NHL both employ extremely liberal systems, with 16 teams out of a total of 30 — over half — making the postseason. Meanwhile, the NFL playoffs, whose format I have always regarded as fair, effective and fun, consist of 12 teams out of a field of 32. Even with the new format, Major League Baseball is still the outlier, so it would be tough to argue that adding two extra teams was a step in the wrong direction. If it were somehow an error, I would still argue that, when you get right down to it, more playoffs are better. The aforementioned NBA playoffs, for example, even though the question of who gets in is basically a coin flip, are by far the most interesting part of the basketball season. In fact, the playoff games are usually the only ones I remember after the season’s over. Yes, the outcome now has a greater chance of being skewed. Big deal. I think I can handle it.

Additionally, for the first time, baseball now has something remotely akin to football’s “Wild Card Weekend” on which division winners receive a bye while the lower seeds play each other. And, hey, who doesn’t love Wild Card Weekend, even if, in baseball’s case, it will be more like “Wild Card Night?”

There’s always room for me to change my tune again; it really all depends on what happens this year and in the years to come.

But, for now, a beautiful thing has happened: for once in my life, I’ve gone from cynic to optimist rather than vice-versa [thunderous applause]. I am happy knowing that, on, I will get to watch two really big games. Aces on the mound. Winner moves on. Loser goes home. Isn’t that what this wonderful waste of time called sports is all about?