The past 24 hours or so have been filled with shrieking referendums on the MLB playoffs and its structure. Not that this structure is really all that different from what came before. But the hope, expressed by yours truly as well, was that making the lower-seeded teams play one or two more games before even getting to the divisional round was supposed to reward those who romped through the regular season more than the playoffs had before.
Obviously, it hasn’t worked out that way. The Phillies and Padres are champions of nothing and yet will play for the championship of the National League. They aren’t just layabouts that hoped to goldbrick their way into the playoffs, though. Both have spent over $200 million this season in the hopes that they would run with the big dogs in their divisions. Their rosters were just kind of wonky in various ways that kept them from doing so. Should Cleveland run out of the Bronx with Game 5, you could definitely call their owners the kind of scourge that isn’t interested in being all they can be and getting away with it.
The wailing is two opposing sides, one screaming how unfair it is that a team can spend six months like the Dodgers, proving to be one of the most dominant teams of all time, and then have it all crash around their ears in the span of a weekend. Others are screaming in defiance about how much fun that makes the postseason. They’re both right, in a way. Because the playoffs aren’t a procession, because they really have nothing to do with what baseball and the baseball season is supposed to be. It’s why a lot of people tune in. And it is unfair that the best team doesn’t always, and even rarely, wins. Because they don’t lose due to any lacking or deficiency. They lose because of a brief spike in variance, something that gets lost in the 162 games but defines a short series. It is simply how that hand is dealt, and teams can’t control that.
But the thing is, it’s always been this way. Baseball’s problem, if it even has one, is that a lot of fans (probably more than any other sport given the average age of its fans versus the other sports) easily recall a time when just making the postseason was incredibly hard and was seen as a success. Having to win the division didn’t come around that often. The Red Sox and Cubs and White Sox streaks of futility were epic not just because of their length, but because of how few shots they got to end them. The Red Sox only had 1967, or 1975, or 1986. It wasn’t just the not winning, but the fact that those chances were so sacred and so few. They lost out on so much more than just a chance for a historic parade. The climb back there seemed so daunting. The Cubs’ and White Sox’s chances were even more rare.
Meta Quest Pro
The Meta Quest Pro centers on working, creating, and collaborating in a virtual space.
But it wasn’t just them. Those late 80s A’s teams were absolutely loaded. They only won the Series once, and in fact got clocked in two others. But we remember them as an all-time great, because even being there was seen as such an accomplishment. The 90s Braves assembled maybe the greatest pitching staff of all-time. One World Series win. The 2008 Phillies very well may not have been as good as the three Phillies teams that came after them. Still only won the once. Mid-90s Cleveland never won one. The early 90s Pirates never even got to the World Series. This list could go on.
And yet teams that made the playoffs at all before say 1995 are still celebrated, even if they didn’t win. Because they did accomplish something that was rare. We don’t do that anymore, and probably won’t again. Everything has become defined by titles in a NBA-like fashion, but basketball is just a different game.
Our perception of the World Series has changed as the playoffs have expanded and trips to them have gotten more automatic for a group of teams at a given time. Now it’s championship or bust. But even the four-playoff team system was rarely fair, as seen above. Seven games is a mere drop compared to 162. There really isn’t a fair baseball playoff system to be found without making every series best of 13 or 15 or something. And that’s never coming.
We don’t remember any particular Dodgers loss before winning the World Series. They’re just a block of losses now, because the chances aren’t that sacred. They’re only seen as blowing a chance at what could have been and not what came before and what went into it. That six months of work and excellence is just par for the course now. Rote. Same will go for the Astros should they not win in a couple weeks. The playoffs are seen as a given, not the six-month-long journey it used to be.
The fear is that should we continue to see the regular season devalued, to be rendered moot or a waste by what happens over just a few days in October, it will have actual effects on teams and the way they’re built. We’re not there, yet. Again, the Phillies and Padres are teams that have tried hard the past few years. When we get a raft of 87-win teams in the postseason, and continually successful, perhaps we will see a change. There are some signs. Attendance has dropped, but owners don’t seem to mind much. They don’t really need regular-season attendance. Their big TV contracts are in the postseason, which means it won’t ever shrink or be changed in a way that makes sense. We could slip down this slope to something truly distasteful, but it’s still some ways off.
But what those who bemoan the randomness of this postseason system are longing for are the days when we held esteem for what a team did during the regular season. Those days are probably gone. I think of the Giants last year, a 107-win team really out of nowhere, that in a different time would be talked about in the same way 1993’s 103-win team that didn’t even get to the playoffs is. A rare but cherished anomaly. And yet last year’s Giants team’s season ended in less than a week. And I don’t know that they’re ever thought of even a year later.
That 1993 Giants team was basically the reason the wild-card was invented. It was seen as justice for any team like that that would follow, that they would also be rewarded for their excellence. And yet it feels like all it’s done is basically wipe those types of teams from memory, somewhere in the rubble of variance-swept division or LCS series. They’re all just another non-champ.
Baseball has always been this way, we just view it differently.
And now, simplicity: