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“Expanded Playoffs Appear Inevitable”

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Bud Selig’s proposal to add two wild card teams; in the interim, that proposal has all but become a certainty. “Expanded playoffs appear inevitable” is the Yahoo headline for the Associated Press story. And, of course, it makes sense why it would be inevitable: Selig and the owners believe that more playoff teams means more money, and players and teams have little incentive to resist a plan that gives them more of a shot at the postseason. Two more facets of the plan from two weeks ago seem more likely: the new wild cards will first appear in 2012, not 2011, and they will probably play a best-of-three series rather than a one-game playoff.

I outlined my objections to the plan two weeks ago, so there’s no reason to restate them at length: I want to keep the schedule from expanding further and prevent the slippery slope of an expanded playoff schedule eroding the significance of the regular season. The main objection beyond that is the speciousness of the stated reasoning. Bud Selig has couched the idea of expanding the playoffs in language about “fairness:” “Eight is very fair number [of playoff teams] but so is 10.” Craig Calcaterra rightly calls him out for that:

I’d probably be less hostile to expanded playoff talk if someone in power could make a single baseball-based argument in favor of it. Likewise, if they simply said “this is about the money, really.” I’d probably lay off too, because hey, at least it’s honest. But please, spare me the “10 is more fair than eight” baloney. What are we, total idiots to them?

Idiots, no. Obviously, this plan is predicated on money. But there is a hidden fairness to it all, which is tied to the fundamental unfairness of the unbalanced schedule and current structure of baseball divisions. It’s fundamentally unfair for the Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays, and Baltimore Orioles to be in competing for two playoff spots with the two richest teams in baseball. Adding another playoff spot is just a bandaid on that problem, but it at least addresses it, and since no other division in baseball has the same problems, maybe a bandaid is all that’s needed. And it’s a little late for a slippery slope argument, as Blue Jay president Paul Beeston notes: “We really crossed that bridge, didn’t we, when we went from two teams to four teams, and then four teams to eight teams? So that bridge has been crossed. I’ve changed. I could add more teams.” Of course, Beeston is one of the men who will benefit most from the new plan.

But the more important ramification of this is that these two new best-of-three series will have to fit into the already packed playoff schedule, tailored as it is to maximize prime time weekend television exposure. Predictably, no one has any stomach for reducing the schedule from 162 games — because, of course, that would mean less money. Rob Neyer suggests that the only way to free up more days on the calendar, then, is to increase the number of traditional day-night doubleheaders. That’s an idea so quaint it seems impossibly naive — the Oakland A’s recently caused headlines by scheduling their first traditional day-night doubleheader since 1995, and they likely did it for a gimmick, to gin up interest in a team whose attendance has been lackluster for years. It seems unlikely that other teams would willingly sign up for that. But Neyer’s right that those extra playoff days will have to come from somewhere.

There isn’t much terribly wrong with this plan, in the abstract: it will make a lot of people richer while helping to increase the hopes of Blue Jays and Orioles fans without much hurting the fans of other teams. Compared to them, my objections are relatively minor. But I wish baseball’s leadership weren’t so disingenuous about it all. At least now I have nearly a year and a half to get used to the idea of 10 playoff teams.