The New York Evening World, 18 Oct 1889. The cartoon marks the Giants victory in the first ever World Series game. I argue we should have emulated the 1889 series in our current 2020 pandemic season.
This is the last week of the major league baseball season, the final leg of season long pennant races as the languid pace of the summer months gives way to a week of manic intensity, desperation and exultation.
It’s the week to remember great races of yore and lore: in 1951 when the Dodgers and Giants played a tie-breaking series where Bobby Thompson hit the shot heard round the world; in 1978 when the Yankees and Red Sox also tied and met for a single game and I left school early enough the watch Yaz pop up to Nettles in the ninth with two out and two on; in 1967, when entering the last week of play, four teams had a chance to reach the World Series and the same Yaz essentially willed the Sox to victory in the last two games, going 7-for-8 with a homer and six runs batted in; the two great collapses, first in 1964, when in a three team race to the wire, the Phillies lost 10 of their last 12, blowing a 6 1/2 game lead, and in 1987 when Toronto lost its last seven games, including a three game set to the Tigers who won the title thanks to the Blue Jays’ implosion.¹
Except not this year.
Earlier in the summer major league baseball faced the prospect of a severely truncated 60 game season. On the one hand, this unprecedented season seemingly transformed baseball from a marathon into almost a sprint. The shortened season — each single game carrying the weight of 2.7 normal games — presented possibilities for tantalizingly new twists and turns. On the other hand, to avoid the curse of the asterisk — even if only in the public imagination — MLB needed to anoint a legitimate and deserving champion.
At first, MLB, made the right move. The playoff format would stay the same, three division winners and two wild card teams meeting in a single elimination game. Then, just as the season neared, MLB reversed course, expanding the playoff field to 16 teams in which all sixteen play in a best-of-three opening round.
In one moment — a travesty on several levels — MLB ruined its regular season and potentially, if not likely, compromised its postseason. The expansion of the playoffs has made MLB into the NBA and NHL with their bloated postseasons rendering the regular season basically meaningless as the drama is reduced to jockeying for seeding position and uninteresting competitions for the final 16th spot. (Full disclosure, in Say it aint so Joe. Could I like MLB’s proposed playoff changes?, I said I might accept an additional wild card in each league, but that change could potentially enhance the late season races.)
So, in this last week, the drama has been largely denuded. How excited are you about the epic race between Houston and Los Angeles for the eight seed? At least the National League has four teams vying for the last two spots. But one of them is below .500. Can you imagine a sub .500 team winning the World Series? Travesty.²
It gets worse. In normal NBA and NHL seasons, at least teams are jockeying for high seeds that come with home field/ice advantage. In the covid season, however, given that fans are not allowed, home field advantage is noticeably lessened. In addition, the last three rounds of the playoff are to be at neutral sites where the only, and very minor, home advantage is batting last.
Initially, MLB planned an innovative wrinkle to the postseason. The top three seeds would choose their first round opponent. Hence, the top seed picks what it considers to be the worst team from the bottom five. Unfortunately, the idea was dropped. As such, given that home field advantage is lessened without fans, teams might actually have an incentive to lose. That is, say a # 2 seed is likely to face a # 7 seed on a hot roll. The # 2 might decide it’s better to face a #6 seed not on hot streak. Hence, the ostensible # 2 could deliberately lose games to avoid playing the # 7 because dropping to the 3rd seed would barely matter.
In addition to diluting the regular season with playoff expansion, MLB has made the opening round a best-of-three series. A travesty. During the regular season, the lesser team very frequently wins a best-of-three set; it’s so commonplace as to barely merit attention. Defenders say the college baseball uses three game series in its postseason and still anoints a legitimate champion. But the talent gap between college teams is much more pronounced than between professional teams. (SEE HISTORY OF THREE GAME SERIES AT END)
Originally, MLB was going to play the opening round in a neutral site bubble, rendering home field advantage virtually non-existent, hence making the regular season that much more irrelevant. At least now that the Wild Card round will be played at the field of the higher seed, the better team will have some home field advantage, albeit diminished without fans. Nonetheless, the ultra-short opening round will likely see a better team unceremoniously eliminated.
I argue that this season the playoffs should not have been expanded; instead, the playoff field should have been contracted. The primary goal of this season should be to produce a World Series champion worthy of the name. The fewer the teams in the playoffs, the better chance the title will be deserved.
Here’s what I would have done.
At the very least, I would eliminate the second wild card and the wild card play-in game. Instead, while I like the drama of a five game series, I would make the Division Series a seven game affair to lessen the chances of a worse team advancing. (I’ve long called for ridding baseball of the second wild card as seen in Eliminate the Wild Card Game, please.)
Actually, I would even go much further.
The challenges of this unique season deserved a unique solution. I would have looked back to 1889 to what was touted as the very first World Series, pitting the Brooklyn Bridegrooms vs. the New York Giants. That very first series was a best of eleven.
To emulate that series, I would have eliminated interleague play and also the playoffs. The 15 teams in each league would battle for a “real” pennant. True, an imbalanced schedule due to limited travel during the pandemic might have allowed a slighter lesser team to win the league pennant; nonetheless, only very top tier teams would play in the World Series.
In keeping with the spirit of 1889, rather than making the DH universal as did MLB, I would eliminate the DH for this season.
The best of eleven 1889 World Series captivated fans. Ultimately, the Giants prevailed in 9 games over the Bridegrooms. The series was marked by the Brooklyn’s stalling tactics. Given that sunset is early in late October, if the Bridegrooms were ahead in the late innings, they stalled in hopes the game would be called by darkness with themselves holding the lead. One game only lasted 6 innings. The Giants complained, and the umpires pushed back against the Bridegrooms’ procrastinations. Perhaps fittingly, it was the Bridegrooms who stalled, like a hapless fiancé trying to drag out his engagement ad nauseam.
Think of how compelling an 11 game series without playoffs would be. Baseball starved fans riveted to every pitch. In an 11 game series without travel breaks because of the neutral site, each team would probably use a five man staff, setting up an unprecedented possible game eleven featuring each team’s ace pitcher.
I vividly remember what is dubbed “the Last Great or Last Real Pennant Race,” the epic 1993 down-to-the wire contest between the Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco Giants in the National League West. 1993 was the last two division, no wild card season. So, while both teams won over a hundred games, the Giants missed the playoff despite 103 victories, well surpassing the NL East champion Phillies who won 97. My radical plan would allow another “Great Pennant Race.”
In September 1993, I moved to Narragansett, Rhode Island to attend graduate school at URI. All summer I followed the back-and-forth race, but while my new home overlooked the Atlantic Ocean, we did not get cable and I only had a small black and white tv.
Happily, I discovered that the Ocean Rose Inn, just across the street from us, had cable and big screen color televisions where I watched the final dramatic showdowns.
I distinctly recall the game of September 12th on the eve of my 30th birthday. At Ocean Rose, I was watching the Giants lose to the Cubs on the west coast. During the game, I met a group of itinerant actors. I missed the end of the Giants-Cubs game because a little after midnight on the 13th, we all went skinny dipping in the Atlantic Ocean, the troupe singing merry and sometimes ribald songs.
Interestingly, 1995, the first year of three divisions and the wild card (there were no playoffs in the strike shortened 1994 season), produced a pennant race even closer than in 1993. In the new American League West, California and Seattle ran neck in neck down the home stretch while also battling the Yankees for the Wild Card spot. The teams were tied at the end of the regular season. Seattle won the elimination game, while California did not make the postseason, falling a game behind the Yankees.
But, while exciting, the 1995 AL West race does not compare to 1993. California and Seattle were only the 4th and 5th best teams. If played under the current (bad) two wild card system, the race would have been anti-climactic as the losing team would also make the playoffs.
OR MAYBE NOT
As much as my arguments about the various travesties are rock solid , I have some misgivings and self-doubt. Maybe the playoff expansion — if limited to a single season — might not be so bad.
No matter what, I would not follow this season closely.
In my anti-playoff expansion jeremiad, I rant that expansion makes the regular season close to irrelevant. But, in fairness, I must confess I have not at all been captivated by the covid season, expansion or not. MLB has tried, but a baseball season needs to be long, like a enduring marriage with its ups and down, in which attention oscillates, peaking at a July 4th double header with lulls like 4 hour games lasting past midnight. This short season feels like dating someone for a year in college, a passing experience and one to be forgotten when the long commitment to marriage — and a 162 game season — beckons.
Furthermore, games without fans, especially in the postseason, are pale substitutes. For example, recently I planned to watch Houston play Los Angeles in Dodger Stadium. Given the bad blood between the two because the cheatin’ ‘Stros who stole a World Series from the Dodgers, normally this would be a scintillating matchup. But I skipped watching. With no fans to boo the Astros, the blood lust appeal of the game was lost. One Dodger fan did pay to have an a plane fly over the stadium with a sign: HOUSTON CHEATS BANG BANG
But, of course, no fans could cheer on the pilots’ exploit, no less exciting than Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing.
Also in fairness, I bemoan the lack of compelling races this season. But looking at the standings and truth be told, the old format would not have produced much drama: only one division race is close.
Furthermore, I must admit, covid or not, I follow the regular season less and less. The games are too slow and long. I don’t like the current overload of home runs and strikeouts. I miss games where ace pitchers go deep into games, if not complete them, rather than leave after a set pitch count to be followed by a stream of relievers.
I confess that for all my purist talk, I mostly tune in for the adrenaline rush of the postseason.
I have not entirely abandoned regular season baseball. I still enjoy listening on the radio while biking. On the radio, while the crowd noise is fake, I can’t see the lack of fans. On Sunday August 16th — a day that was a brief respite from the searing heat wave — I cycled on the Genesee Riverway Trail up to Charlotte and then over to Durand Park with a hand held radio in my shirt pocket tuned to the Red Sox – Yankee game. I find the that flow of passing landscape and the flow of the baseball game are complimentary.
At Durand, I hid my radio under a log and went for a cooling swim. Given how long Red Sox-Yankees games are, I didn’t miss much. Upon return, the radio was safely under the log, although if someone from the current generation found the hand held device, they might find it a mysterious object, much less steal the analog throwback. I returned home just as the postgame show was rehashing the Yankees 4 – 2 victory in which several late inning Red Sox rallies were squelched. Glad that baseball was back.
The Yankees made the playoffs
Like many fans, I mostly focus on my teams, first the New York Yankees and then the New York Mets if they are doing well.This gimmicky season I hypocritically accept the gift of the Yankees in the postseason. Under the old format, they would fighting with two other teams for the wild card spots (or in one of my scenarios, a single wild card spot). Under my radical reworking of the season, the Yankees would be out of the pennant race.
Baseball might get lucky as it did in 1981
As seen in The 1981 baseball strike comes to Rochester. When Dave Winfield made 1.3 million a year!, the last time baseball had to drastically refigure its format was during the 1981 strike season when a split season was played. The system was flawed; the division winner in the first half had limited incentive to win in the second half and the Cincinnati Reds actually had the best overall record but failed to make the postseason.
That season the playoffs were expanded from four to eight teams. The experiment worked. The playoffs were exciting.Most importantly, the World Series featured two top teams, the Dodgers and the Yankees in an rematch of the Yankees victories in 1977 and 1978. The Series was compelling and the expanded playoff were forgiven by purists.
If the 2020 season produces a Yankees-Dodgers matchup, all will be again forgiven. As see in Looking through the glass half full, the 2020 baseball preview, Street & Smith’s predicts the Yankees will beat the Dodgers in the World Series.
The playoffs will be must see TV
The 2020 season is a season of novelties — expanded and reserve rosters, seven inning double headers, starting extra innings with a runner on second³ — with the biggest novelty being the three game Wild Card series. We haven’t had a three game elimination series since 1962. (SEE BELOW) The Wild Card round — September 29th – August 2nd if necessary — may well undermine the legitimacy of the eventual champion — but will be compelling. September 30th will be an eight-game day with every Wild Card Series in action.
The division and league series will also be different. To be played at a neutral site, no off days are scheduled. This compressed will lead to new pitching strategies. And the World Series will end before Halloween.
UDATE: Actually, the playoff system worked out fine as the World Series featured the two teams with the best records, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles.
¹ The 1973 American League East race produced an oddity when Detroit won the Division with the smallest margin possible, one half game, over Boston. In April, the players had gone on strike resulting in teams playing between 6 and 9 less games than scheduled, allowing the Tigers to win by that one half game over the Red Sox.² As we approach, the final weekend, the National League races have tightened, and are actually interesting. Eight teams are chasing four spots.
³ These innovations have baseball junkies imagining unlikely but possible new scenarios. For example this season a pitcher could pitch a perfect game — and lose! A pitcher could enter the bottom of 10th inning with a perfect game. Under the new rule, a base runner is put on second base. The pitcher throws two wild pitches and the game is over. The pitcher retired all 27 batters he faced — a perfect game — and he lost.
Postscript: history of the National League’s best-of-three tiebreaking series
Before division play, four times, the National League held a best-of-three tiebreaking series to determine the pennant winner. Interestingly, each time involved the Dodgers, in 1946 and 1951 when the franchise was in Brooklyn and in 1959 and 1962 when in Los Angeles.
The series produced many dramatic finishes. 1946 was one sided with the Cardinals winning in two. 1951 featured what some consider the greatest home run in baseball history: Bobby Thompson’s three run shot to win the pennant for the Giants. In 1959, the Dodgers won in two against the Milwaukee Braves, but both were one run affairs. In game two, the Dodgers rallied for three runs in the ninth before winning on Felix Mantilla’s error in the 12th. In 1962, the Giants gained revenge for 1951, winning in three games. Game two — Dodgers by 8 – 7 — was, at the time, the longest nine inning game in major league history. The Giants won game three 6 – 4 after a four run 9th inning rally that included a walk that forced in the go-head run and an error by Jose Pagán to extend the Giants lead.
1946 St. Louis Cardinals vs. Brooklyn Dodgers
Notably, as seen in 70 years ago today when Jackie Robinson broke the color line at Red Wings Stadium, in 1946 Jackie Robinson played at Red Wings Stadium when a member of the International League Montreal Royals.
The Cardinals won the first game, 4-2.
The Cardinals won the second game 8 – 4.
1951 New York Giants vs. Brooklyn Dodgers
Notably, as seen in Baseball at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park (1960 – 1972), 1951 was the rookie season for Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays who met in World Series.The Giants won the first game 3 – 1.
The Dodgers won game two 10 – 0.
The Giants won the third game 5 – 4.
1959 Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Milwaukee Braves
The Dodgers win the first game 3- 2.
The Dodgers won the second game 6 – 5 in twelve innings.
1962 San Francisco Giants vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Giants won the first game 8 – 0.
The Dodgers won the second game game 8 – 7.
The Giants won the third game 6 – 4.
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