Responding to a decade-long decline in attendance and relevance in American sports, Major League Baseball apparently is considering for the 2022 season expanding its playoff format from 10 to 14 teams, and throwing in a time-tested selection gimmick from one of reality TV’s more mind-numbing shows.
In the elimination style of The Bachelor and its numerous spit-ups . . . uh, spinoffs, a higher-seeded team gets to choose from a small field the opponent it would most like to play in the first round. In this baseball version, the selection would tend to favor the weakest and homeliest, offering figurative dandelions instead of a rose ceremony.
If MLB is going to draw from lowest-common-denominator entertainment, I would have preferred it develop a version of Naked and Afraid. Especially since David Wells and Prince Fielder are retired.
If MLB is serious about deploying TV stunts to trick an addled public, just go balls-out.
But don’t go naked and afraid for for the whole game. Just one inning. We don’t want the stunt to become as ordinary as a regular-season game between the Mariners and Orioles. Baserunners can wear sliding pads and catchers can cup up, which also makes a better background for stealing signs. And yes, umpires must remain dressed. Lordy.
MLB probably won’t go there.
Then again, I didn’t think MLB was going to go where the New York Post first reported this week the sport was going.
MLB is contemplating having each league’s three division winners joined in the playoffs by four wild-card teams. The best team in each league would have a bye into the division series. The two remaining division winners and the wild-card team with the best record of the four would each host all games of a best-of-three series in the opening round.
The team with the second-best record gets to choose who it plays in the best-of-three wild-card round from the other three lower wild-card teams. Then, the division winner with the worst record gets the next choice, with the two remaining teams playing each other.
The selection portion to determine match-ups for the best-of-three series would be done Sunday evening on national TV after the final regular season games. Besides The Bachelor analogy, the presentation evokes some of the drama of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s Selection Sunday.
The undeniably good thing is the format gets rid of the current do-or-die play-in game for wild-card teams. For the losing team, the one-and-done is a ridiculously hasty end to a 162-game season. Three games is more fair, even if all are played on the field of the team with the better record.
And the decisions to play one team over another will be a second-guesser’s dream, which is the lifeblood of baseball. So maybe the stunt is stupid enough to work.
The reason behind the proposal is what is behind every big change in sports — money. The bloat-up provides more games and more watching in more cities. Since the TV contracts for Turner and ESPN are up after 2021 (Fox goes until 2028), the first chance to deploy this plan is 2022. And since big-time live sports remain the only entertainment in the culture that is appointment TV, the networks figure to pony up for it.
The proposal has yet to go formally public, and first needs to get approved by the players union. The initial signal was positive: Players union chief Tony Clark said in a statement he was open to “expanding the playoffs in a sensible way is something worth discussing when part of a much more comprehensive conversation about the current state of our game.”
Objections will be raised by many who say 14 is too many for 30 eligible teams. It is a lot, but it’s not quite like the NBA and NHL, where anyone can get in the postseason with a driver’s license and a tattoo.
Yes, there is a threat for teams with sub-.500 records to make the field. In fact, in 2017, only five teams in the American League had winning records. But that happens in the other sports, and they don’t appear to have developed any fatally toxic conditions from it.
Certainly, no one in Seattle complained when the 7-9 Seahawks beat defending champion New Orleans in coach Pete Carroll’s first year of 2010 on the back of Marshawn Lynch’s Beastquake run.
Mariners fans should be thrilled.
After 43 years of trying and failing to come forward in the game, the Mariners would discover the game is going backward to reach them. Had the proposed system been in place following their most recent playoff appearance in 2001, the Mariners would have reached the postseason in 2002, 2003, 2007, 2009, 2014, 2016 and 2018.
Suddenly the whole narrative arc of the franchise changes. Instead of being portrayed as misbegotten ne’er-do-wells, the Mariners can claim victimhood, saying the MLB system was rigged against them, and finally took belated corrective action.
A side benefit would be that the Mariners would begin to be loved again nationally as they once were in the Piniella/Griffey years, because what team wouldn’t want to play the Mariners in the playoffs?
For the national picture, however, there’s unsorted problems. For example, in 2018, the Nationals, Diamondbacks and Pirates all finished with 82 wins, which would have been seventh place in the National League in the proposed format. How is that tie broken? Paper, scissors, rocks?
Much as it works for Seattle, MLB already has enough problems with the sign-stealing scandal without MacGyvering the postseason. Just play an inning of Naked and Afraid and whole new audiences would pour revenue into the game.
Baseball is already losing its integrity. We’re merely quibbling over price.