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Friday, October 10, 2003
Updated: October 12, 1:12 AM ET
Best ever right before our eyes

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A hundred baseball postseasons. All memorable, cool and historic.

But if the beauty, the never-ending drama and the monumental significance of this one hasn't swept you up in its tidal wave yet, then you're missing something special.

Sammy Sosa
Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa has displayed plenty of star power.

Because of all those 100 baseball postseasons, this one is the best.

We still have many games to play, of course. We still have heroes and goats, losers and winners to come. We still have champagne to spray and hearts to break.

But less than two weeks into October, baseball already has assembled every ingredient necessary for this postseason to go down as the greatest, most legendary of them all:

  • Storied teams with vast fan bases? Check.

  • Revered ballparks? Check.

  • Marquee names? Got 'em.

  • And best of all, sensational games? Games that keep you up past bedtime? Games that grab your eyeballs and won't let go? Games filled with mind-boggling finishes and crazy calls and plot twists you never saw coming?

    Yes, yes, yes and yes.

    So unless the next couple of weeks somehow turn into a gigantic sporting train wreck, it's time right now to stop and appreciate what we're in the midst of:

    This won't be merely the best postseason in baseball history. It will be the best postseason in any sport's history. Because there is no postseason like baseball's postseason. And we can prove it.

    Do the math
    In just the first nine days of these baseball playoffs, we witnessed 14 games decided by one or two runs. Fourteen. That's 14 of the first 21 -- a rate of 67 percent.

    Closeness counts
    MLB PLAYOFFS
    2003 14 of 21 67 pct
    2002 14 of 34 41 pct
    2001 17 of 35 49 pct
    2000 14 of 31 45 pct
    1999 14 of 31 45 pct
    1998 12 of 30 40 pct
    1997 18 of 34 53 pct
    1996 19 of 32 59 pct
    1995 14 of 31 45 pct
    Total 126 of 252 50 pct
    (Close -- decided by 1 or 2 runs)
    NFL PLAYOFFS
    2002-03 3 of 11 27 pct
    2001-02 4 of 11 36 pct
    2000-01 2 of 11 18 pct
    1999-2000 6 of 11 54 pct
    1998-99 4 of 11 36 pct
    Total 19 of 35 35 pct
    (Close -- decided by 8 points or fewer)
    NBA PLAYOFFS
    2002-03 32 of 88 36 pct
    2001-02 31 of 71 44 pct
    2000-01 25 of 71 35 pct
    1999-2000 29 of 77 38 pct
    1998-99 17 of 66 26 pct
    Total 134 of 373 36 pct
    (Close -- decided by 6 points or fewer)

    That's the highest rate, at that 21-game milepost, of any postseason in the nine years since baseball added wild cards and a third round. But if you've paid attention at all over these last nine Octobers, you know that a succession of great games is practically regularly scheduled programming for this sport.

    Through Wednesday, there had been 252 postseason baseball games played since 1995. An amazing 50 percent were decided by one or two runs. And there hasn't been a single October in which baseball failed to give us a postseason in which at least 40 percent of all playoff games were one- or two-run games.

    Now stack that up against the other pro sports to which baseball is compared most -- football and basketball.

    Think those NFL playoffs are must-see TV? Well, maybe -- if you're snowed in for two days. But only 35 percent of all NFL postseasons games over the last five years fit our definition of "close games" (decided by eight points or fewer).

    And in only one of those last five NFL postseasons (the 1999-2000 edition) has the football playoffs exceeded baseball's lowest rate of close postseason games under the current format -- 40 percent. But in many years, it's literally no contest. Last season, just 27 percent of NFL playoff games were "close." In 2000-01, it was only 18 percent.

    We grant you that football has fewer games. But the NBA -- which has far more playoff games -- does no better. If we define a "close game" in basketball to be a game decided by no more than six points (i.e., two three-pointers), then only 36 percent of all playoff games over the NBA's last five postseasons have been "close."

    And like the NFL, only one NBA postseason in the last five years (2001-02) has cranked out "close games" in 40 percent of its whole playoff extravaganza -- while baseball has topped 40 percent every year.

    So ... any more questions? You don't need to work for Bud Selig to see the truth: Baseball's postseason is the most underrated of any sport.

    We're not sure why it's so underrated. Maybe it's because the wild-card concept outraged so many traditionalists when the commish dropped it on them.

    But Steve Hirdt, the ever-astute historian and numbers wizard of the Elias Sports Bureau, theorizes that maybe the problem the first round has created is that there is "so much going on every day that it would take really intense concentration on every game to keep up with everything. A lot of great stuff happens in each individual series that gets forgotten later on because it gets eclipsed by what takes place in the later rounds."

    Well, maybe that is the problem. But if it is, it's not a problem anyone seems to have with the first round in the other sports. In fact, in the closest sporting parallel to baseball's first round -- the opening two days of the NCAA basketball tournament -- the insanity of the first round is just about everybody's favorite feature of the entire event.

    Is it impossible to watch and digest every minute of baseball's first round? Well, yeah -- at least if you want to stay married, or employed.

    But if it causes some minor vertigo to find the Marlins rallying in the 11th to beat the Giants before dinner, and then the Braves fighting to preserve their dynasty at Wrigley later that evening, and then the A's running the bases like the Vito's Pizza T-ball team deep into "Saturday Night Live" territory, so what?

    If you're a fan, the goal of the first round ought to be to come out of it as dizzy and sleepless as possible. And this year, we sure fulfilled that mission. We also got ...

    Our cast of characters
    Even better than Ivan Rodriguez's plate block, or Trot Nixon's midnight homer, or Kerry Wood's sheer unhittability in the biggest game of his life is that the first round produced more than simply real-life masterpiece theater. It produced just about the perfect group of four survivors: Cubs, Red Sox, Yankees, Marlins.

    Pudge Rodriguez
    Coming off a stellar postseason, the Marlins might find it difficult to re-sign Pudge Rodriguez.

    "You've got the three most historic stadiums in baseball -- Wrigley, Fenway and Yankee Stadium -- still in play," Hirdt said. "And if you asked people before the season what teams they'd like to see in the postseason, those teams -- Cubs, Red Sox and Yankees -- would probably finish 1-2-3."

    As for the fourth team, don't even ask where the Marlins would have finished in that survey, because the answer might have been 46th. But they're a tremendous story in their own right, because of where they've come from (10 games under .500), who manages them (a 72-year-old baseball lifer, Jack McKeon), their reinvented superstar (Rodriguez) and their apparently incurable addiction to frenetic postseason finishes.

    So why has the first chapter of this postseason gotten its highest TV ratings in history? Why did the early games in the baseball playoffs outrate the finals of the NBA playoffs? Why was the New York Times actually editorializing this week that America needs a Cubs-Red Sox World Series?

    Because, if you discount the Marlins and their bizarre history, the teams still playing are teams that have imbedded themselves in more souls than maybe any combination of franchises in any sport's Final Four.

    Last year this time, it was just about impossible to find any Angels fan outside the Orange County line. But there are Cubs fans, Red Sox fans and Yankees fans in all 50 states, in about 182 countries and, according to a NASA study, on at least six planets.

    So to fulfill its appointment with greatness, all this postseason has to do from here is play itself out.

    Cubs against anybody is a classic World Series. Red Sox against anybody is a classic World Series. Yankees against anybody is a classic clash of $180-million conglomerate vs. a lovable little underdog.

    And if it's Cubs-Red Sox? Then we've left the sports pages and landed this flight in the center of Main Street. We don't know who would win. But we'd sure set an all-time World Series record for poetry, street parties and tales of woe-is-us history lessons.

    Future shock
    Before this saga ends with a happily-ever-after, though, we need to warn you:

    How will baseball celebrate its best postseason ever? By changing the rules, of course.

    Already, groundwork is being laid to alter the format of future postseasons -- by adding more wild-card teams, creating a fourth round of games and possibly expanding the Division Series from best-of-five to best-of-seven.

    The commissioner has a 21st Century Committee studying futuristic stuff like this. And playoff changes are right at the top of the agenda.

    Also, the players believe they have a favor coming in return for agreeing to the two-year experiment to have the All Star Game determine homefield advantage in the World Series. And adding a second wild-card team in each league is high on their list.

    So given those forces converging, it's almost a lock that you'll be seeing another wild-card team in each league sometime within the next three Octobers. The question is what other changes will be made.

    The best format we've heard yet is one proposed by Hirdt. Adding that second wild-card team may sound like it's further cheapening the regular season -- but not if we do it his way.

    His idea is for the two wild-card teams in each league to meet in one "play-in game" a day or two after the season. Winner goes on to the Division Series. Loser gets out the fishing rods.

    That may seem unfair. But it would accomplish a goal that no other format has been able to accomplish: It creates a far more significant penalty for the wild-card team than merely not having homefield advantage in the first two rounds.

    There's a certain immediacy in a best-of-five. I wonder: In those series we just had, would they have been just as exciting if they'd been best-of-seven?
    Baseball executive Sandy Alderson

    "If you make that first round one game, it makes the wild-card team use its best pitcher just to advance," Hirdt said. "So then it would only be able to use that pitcher in one game in the next round instead of two. And that reduces what I call 'The Pedro Factor' (one hot pitcher pulling off an upset virtually singlehandedly)."

    The players, though, oppose that idea. They're pushing a two-out-of-three wild-card round, based on the theory that there's no justice in having a whole season determined by one game.

    "But the fact is," Hirdt said, "seasons come down to one game all the time. It happened in Oakland, with the A's and Red Sox, the other night. It happened in Atlanta, with the Braves and Cubs. They didn't invoke tennis rules when their series was tied at 2-2. Nobody announced, 'Deuce. You now have to win by two.' Baseball seasons come down to one game all the time."

    And if that game matched Randy Johnson vs. Mark Prior, with their teams' season on the line? How compelling a way to kick off the postseason would that be?

    But the next issue is what to do about the Division Series. In the last week, we've heard the Giants and Braves complain that the best-of-five format isn't a fair test, that it makes it too easy for the best teams to be upset.

    You can understand where they're coming from. Over the last four postseasons, the team with the best record has lost 13 of 15 best-of-five series. Of the six teams that have won 100 games in the last two years, five of them lost in the first round.

    But is a best-of-seven that much fairer? Of the nine best-of-seven series since 2000, the team with the best regular-season record lost five of them, too.

    "If the choice was best-of-five vs. best-of-37, that's different," Hirdt said. "In a best-of-37, the better team would have a markedly better chance. But I'm not convinced there's a significant difference if we're talking best-of-five vs. best-of-seven."

    Plus, going to best-of-five would rob the first round of one of its best current features -- the sense of urgency teams feel in every game.

    "There's a certain immediacy in a best-of-five," said Sandy Alderson, baseball's executive vice president for baseball operations. "I wonder: In those series we just had, would they have been just as exciting if they'd been best-of-seven?"

    Good question. But there is one more reason to retain that best-of-five Division Series. If you combine a one-game wild-card playoff with an immediate trip to a best-of-five second round, that creates a rocky road to the World Series for the wild-card entry.

    But if that one-game playoff is followed by a best-of-seven, it would hardly penalize the wild-card team at all for using its best pitcher in the one-game playoff -- because it could still bring that pitcher back twice in a best-of-seven series.

    There will be plenty of time, however, to sort through all these questions. Right now, we have better things to do -- like savoring baseball's finest moment for however long it lasts. If you don't savor it now, next thing you know it'll be hockey season.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.