Major League Baseball could adopt Commissioner Bud Selig's proposal to expand its playoffs by two additional teams as soon as 2012, according to an AP report. The report cites multiple general managers and owners at this week's GM Meetings in Orlando who said the plan has enough support to easily pass whenever Selig proposes it to the owners.
Selig oversaw the implementation of the Wild Card system in baseball in the first place, as a younger and greener commissioner in 1994. The system, which expanded the playoffs to twice its previous size, met with resistance in its early years but has become an accepted part of the baseball landscape.
Now, however, Selig wishes to expand the playoffs from eight teams (four in each league, with three division winners and a Wild Card entrant) to 10 (five in each league, with the two Wild Cards playing a very brief three-game series for the right to take on the strongest division winner). There seems to be little opposition to the idea. Rather, owners and GMs seem only to wonder how it will be put into place.
On its surface, the idea may sound appealing: More playoffs, more excitement. That is certainly the formula for the NBA and NFL, and for collegiate athletics, where postseason tournaments and spectacles generate a huge portion of league revenues. Baseball does less well in terms of capitalizing on the drama of October, so perhaps this proposed addition would improve their playoff visibility.
Not so. Selig and company are overlooking major flaws with this idea, and if it becomes protocol at any point in the near future, it will only serve to further diminish the integrity and profitability of the game that was once so firmly America's pastime.
For starters, the season needs no expansion. Baseball begins in late March or early April, and for two straight seasons, it has run into November. For fans whose lives are even more complicated once fall arrives (and for baseball, whose fanbase is overwhelmingly composed of white families, that is a sizable demographic), a certain fatigue sets in over such a long year.
The NFL season runs only five months, ESPN's obnoxious year-round obsession notwithstanding. The NBA begins in late October and ends in mid-June, but its playoffs (protracted and crazy as they often are) take place as the school year winds down and ends.
Secondly, baseball ought not to run from itself this way, merely in the name of increasing its transient popularity. This is the same mistake made by both political parties in recent national elections: They seem to think that their present struggles are because they have become too entrenched in their ways or too inflexible to public demand.
In reality, though, the public's demands are much more pliable than the public cares to believe, and when an entity like MLB beings to lose popularity, it is more likely because they are not observing tradition closely enough.
Baseball has always been unique for the value it places on its regular season. There is beauty in the long and painful roller-coaster ride of a 26-week season, especially when only the teams who display consistency and intensity every day reach the playoffs.
The NFL plays only 16 games, which makes the race toward the playoffs a crap shoot; anyone can get in with a hot streak in November and December. The NBA, in which over 50 percent of the league reaches the playoffs, separates the wheat from the chaff only once the playoffs begin.
Baseball has a higher integrity in this regard, and they ought not to surrender it.
Thirdly, the best ostensible reasons for this expansion would be to capitalize on playoff revenue streams and to keep the highly provincial fanbases of baseball more engaged as the season progresses. The second premise may be sound; the first is flawed. Baseball's postseason has been a ratings and attendance disaster over the past five years, primarily because there is already too much playoff baseball.
Like the early rounds of play in the NBA, baseball gets relegated to cable (and not even to the powerful cable signal of ESPN, rather to a TBS signal on which few naturally look for sports) simply because the networks (even FOX, who currently carries some playoff baseball) do not have space for seven-game series that railroad their top programs. Thus, the playoff bump that the NFL and (especially) the NBA get does not rise as high for MLB.
Selig's legacy in this game will be that he always sought to make the game more marketable to the masses, but failed to serve the pure baseball fans' best interests—and often never got the grand following he hoped for in return. If this expansion goes through before his term expires, that stain will grow darker and blot more of the many forward strides he has made during his tenure.