Commentary

Eight is enough for MLB playoffs

Updated: March 1, 2012, 12:42 AM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

John F. Kennedy once said, "conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth."

But in the billion-dollar sports industry, conformity and duplication are the preferred methods for growing the bottom line because being like everyone else usually works.

[+] EnlargeJim Leyland
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesEven managers such as Jim Leyland with recent playoff success would like the extra insurance of an expanded postseason.

All major sports leagues have expanded in the past two decades to boost revenue. And the NBA (16 teams since 1984), NHL (16 since 1980) and NFL (12 since 1990) include a greater number (and proportion) of their franchises in the postseason. From that standpoint, it's understandable why Major League Baseball would want to expand from eight to 10 playoff teams -- a decision that will be made or postponed this week.

It makes perfect financial sense, but is it common sense?

The answer is no.

Do you remember where you were on Sept. 28, 2011? It was only the greatest regular-season finale in baseball history. The Boston Red Sox needed one more out against the Baltimore Orioles to make the playoffs. Trailing the New York Yankees 7-0 in the eighth inning, the Tampa Bay Rays needed a win and a Boston loss to secure a spot in the postseason.

Then the most unreal, unpredictable, unbelievable thing happened. The Orioles and Rays both won in dramatic fashion. And the Red Sox claimed the notoriety of the most epic late-season collapse of all time.

If the expanded postseason formula had been in place last year, those two dramatic games would have only affected home field for a one-game playoff between the Rays and Red Sox. Of course, Terry Francona might still be the Red Sox's manager and, most importantly, beer and chicken wouldn't be frowned upon in Boston's clubhouse.

Baseball's most recent postseason change came in 1994 (and played out in 1995 after the lockout canceled the prior year's playoffs). The field doubled from four to eight as the leagues were divided from two divisions to three and two wild-card teams were added to round out the field. It was simply the right thing to do. Good teams were being shut out of the playoffs. In 1993, for example, the San Francisco Giants won 103 games but missed the playoffs because they finished a game behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL West.

That was an injustice. This proposed postseason expansion nonsense is undeserved charity. (Just ask the 2010-11 Indiana Pacers, who made the playoffs at 37-45, or the 2002-03 New York Islanders, who limped in at 35-34-11-2.)

Congratulations, mediocre teams! You have even more incentive to remain average!

Supporters of an expanded postseason believe adding two wild-card teams and high-stakes one-game playoffs would make winning a division more important. Teams wouldn't be able to do what the Yankees did in 2010, when they purposely lost the division to the Rays so they could rest players and draw the Minnesota Twins, whom the Yankees had beaten the previous year in the American League Division Series and who were a much more favorable matchup that season than the Texas Rangers.

[+] EnlargeBraves
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe Braves wouldn't have been watching the postseason from home if there had been a second NL wild card in 2011.

You'll never be able to eliminate that kind of below-board strategizing in sports. During the 2002-03 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers may have tanked to give themselves a better chance of securing LeBron James with No. 1 pick in the draft. Being purposely non-competitive is generally considered a cardinal sin in sports, but what was more important -- losing games in a meaningless season and a little bit of organizational indignity or the seven seasons James spent in Cleveland? Even jersey-burning James haters would agree that tank job was a good idea. And other teams have been suspected of tanking to improve their draft positions, but you don't see NBA commissioner David Stern changing the rules haphazardly just because a few teams exploited a loophole.

Even if MLB's proposed postseason changes increase the importance of winning the division, they will come at the expense of the regular season, which would be diminished.

Not surprisingly, baseball managers are in favor of expanding the number of playoff teams. What manager wouldn't support a system that allows more room for error?

But isn't there already too much expansion in sports? There are too many teams in the NBA, too many playoff spots in both the NBA and NHL (16 of 30 teams in both), and too many bowl games in college football. The NCAA tournament presently is the best postseason event in sports, but NCAA officials increased the tournament field to 68 and there was discussion of growing it to 96.

That's just laughable.

If MLB is bored and looking for things to tweak, how about reducing the 162-game regular-season schedule?

But I forget. Subtraction is a dirty word in sports.

The NFL can do no wrong because it has brilliantly created a system in which every team theoretically has a chance of being successful.

An expanded postseason is baseball's misguided attempt to create that same sense of parity, only baseball has already accomplished that. There have been nine different World Series champions in the past 11 years (and none of those teams finished third in their divisions, like the 1995 NBA champ Houston Rockets).

Something definitely worked; there was no need to tinker with anything.

But perhaps baseball couldn't resist wanting to be like everyone else.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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