Four of twenty eight, ten of thirty
Growing up, baseball was more than one of three national sports. It was the only one that mattered. Each day I could get my afternoon copy of the Times and pore over the day-late boxscores, looking for weird plays, interesting lines, and I’d read one or two paragraph wire recaps of games eagerly for news of players I couldn’t count on ever seeing in person. It took me a long time to grasp how long the seasons were, because it seemed like there wasn’t baseball news only when it was dark and rainy all the time.
I loved that the playoffs were so small. In 1993 four — only four — teams played in the post-season: the Blue Jays, the White Sox, the Phillies, the Braves. Two teams won more than 90 games and stayed home: the Expos won 94.The Giants, my second-favorite team, won 103 games and lost the NL West to Atlanta by a game.
I’m still angry about that loss, and I took it as a reasonable argument for re-alignment and the wild card, and yet I understood. I always looked at the NBA and the NHL and rolled my eyes. I didn’t see the point in a regular season if half the teams got in. What did it matter? Why even bother playing fifty games if the outcomes didn’t matter? Baseball… baseball got it. The regular season took so long that only strong, deep teams could make the playoffs — if you could barely patch together a three-starter rotation, you could win a series but how would you even get there?
The 2001 Mariners, that was a long-season team. Balanced, consistent, deep. As a roster-construction geek, admired the collapsible squads that could get to the eighty-five, eighty-eight wins to squeak into the post-season and thrive in rest-day-heavy playoff schedules, sure. But I loved teams that had deep benches, and a long man in the bullpen who would start double-headers.
Why bother now? There are no double-headers, and some playoff schedules flirt with being pitchable by two starters on each team.
I miss those teams. But I miss caring about the post-season more. In 1993, four of 28 teams went to the playoffs, and it was special. Every playoff game mattered, because the winner of each of the Championship Series played in the World Series, and in the World Series the two leagues played each other.
I know, quaint.
In 2001, when my marathon-runner M’s won and won, remember the A’s ended up with 102 victories as well. And unlike my Giants in 93, they got in, and I was happy. And I loved seeing the Mariners play the Giants. But since then interleague play grew stale, it affected the fairness of schedules, and we’ve all been subjected to far too many Padres-Mariners game. Worse, expanding the playoffs has led to expanding the playoffs further: according to ESPN, Selig’s going to go to ten-team playoffs and none of the owners seem to care.
In 20 years, baseball will go from having four of 28 teams play in the post-season to letting ten of 30 in. Ten of thirty. Proportionately in 1993, when the injustice of the Giants made me willing to accept the wild card, nine teams would have gone, all the way down to say, Texas, at 86-76, with three teams tied behind them at 85-77. Texas finished eight games behind the Chicago squad that lost to the Blue Jays in the ALCS. The Cardinals at 87-75 get in, and they finished ten games back from the Phillies team that played in the World Series.
I know a World Series game lost in the ratings to a not particularly interesting NFL game, and I know there’s a ton of money in post-season broadcasts. But I’ve always felt baseball was a unique game with a season that encouraged following it, learning it, and letting it become part of your life. I wish it wasn’t so willing to sell the very things that make it special and wonderful for short-term gain, and instead highlighted and celebrated why it’s different and the ways it’s superior.
Would the playoffs in 1993 been better for having those teams that finished eight, ten games back over the course of a 162-game season get into the post-season? That Atlanta and San Francisco could be so good for a whole season and even in the last days throw everything they could into each game and in that last day each inning, out, and pitch required that the division title be worth so much. The playoffs, in turn, benefited. We remember that Giants team for being the second-best in baseball that year while still missing the playoffs, a mark of undeniable greatness and bitter frustration. I can’t believe that isn’t worth more than being the tenth team into the playoffs, or than the immediate gains from forcing baseball to be like all the other sports.