MLB playoffs just started. Cool! There've been some classic moments in Octobers past: the entirety of the 2001 World Series ('cept Game 6), Aaron Boone, Bill Mazeroski, the upstart Marlins of '97 and '03, Joe Carter, etc. But is it the best playoff format out there? Eh, most people would lean March Madness—the one-and-done creates such unlikely heroes as Harold Arceneaux ("The Show") and has given Rumeal Robinson broader cultural relevance. Of course, there's also hockey: playoff beards, the propensity for No. 8 seeds to make deep runs, the Rangers in '94! Here's what we (think) we know: BCS is a mess, NBA playoffs are waaaay too long and the NFL playoffs are mostly about one game. So, we decided to turn 'The Back and Forth' into a three-way debate about the best playoff format around. Your reps: ESPN The Magazine general editor (she's in charge of college basketball) Sarah Turcotte; ESPN The Magazine senior writer E.J. Hradek (dude basically wrote the entire NHL Preview issue himself); and former Baseball Tonight researcher turned author of BaseballMusings.Com, Dave Pinto. This should be fun.
PINTO FROM BASEBALLMUSINGS:
Baseball playoffs surpass the other sports due to the Luis Sojo factor. Imagine two seconds to go, UCLA trailing Duke by one for the National Championship—and the twelfth man on the bench gets the last shot. Imagine Detroit and Anaheim skating tied in the last minute of Game 7 with the fourth line on the ice. It doesn't happen. With the randomness of baseball, what appears to be a brilliant managerial move in the seventh inning might bring up the 25th man on the roster in the game situation in the ninth. When that player comes through, however, the moment lives forever.
The five-game first round adds to this underdog success story: it provides advantages to teams with depth problems that cause them to lose more during the regular season. These teams often win the wlld card. Depth doesn't matter as much as front-line strength in a short series, leading to so many second place teams winning the World Series. In 13 seasons, nine wild card teams reached the World Series and four won. The baseball playoffs are the place to root against the favorite.
TURCOTTE (COLLEGE HOOPS):
First of all, I'm a huge baseball and hockey fan. Love the regular seasons, love the post seasons, can't get enough—even when my teams are out of it. Unfortunately, most people aren't like me. I spent this past weekend searching desperately for a place that would show the final weekend of the MLB regular season—with the postseason on the line for several teams—and it was almost impossible. No one was going to show late September baseball, essentially playoff baseball, on a college football Saturday or an NFL Sunday. It just doesn't happen, and that speaks volumes.
And call it what you like, "the underdog," "Cinderella," "giant killer," "bracket buster," March Madness epitomizes David and his fight against Goliath. Sure, the wild card can win the World Series, but let's be honest, it's hard to think of multi-millionaires in small markets as the "little guy." George Mason is the little guy. Stephen Curry is the little guy. For three weeks each March, everyone cares about college basketball. Don't have a dog in the fight? You'll find one, maybe two. Your team gets knocked in in round one? No problem, pick another. By the end of the first week, brackets are tattered from constant analysis. Folks in LA are reliving last-second plays from the Drake-Wake Forest game, and kids in Kentucky need BYU to upset West Virginia. I'm pretty sure the ratings for the Columbus Blue Jackets in the playoffs aren't going to be stellar in Mobile. I'm just saying.
The biggest advantage the NCAA Tournament has over the NHL and MLB playoffs is that it never disappoints. It's never just an OK year. Every matchup matters. Every single game is one team's last. Nothing compares to that.
Take a look at what we're talking about here. I mean, the Cup playoffs are a two-month physical and mental grind. Think about that. That's two months where you play just about every other day. With each passing game, you're more beat up, but you keep going. The guys grow those "playoff beards" because they want to look like they feel—worn. They play through injuries that would make a college hoops kid cry for his mom. And, we know that most baseball players can't play with even the slightest ailment. Only in the Stanley Cup playoffs could you find a guy like Bobby Baun, who scored a Cup clinching goal while playing on a broken ankle!
What do I think about the other two dogs in his fight? Well, the NCAA tournament is a nice gambling event for America. Last spring, I think I was the only person in the country who didn't have a "bracket." That's the biggest draw for the NCAA tournament. It's the chance for the average Joe or Jane to win some extra dough by picking games between schools that they would have trouble locating on a map. That's cool. But really, you could do the same type of tourney with our top high school hoop teams and—as long as there's a bracket—people will get into it.
I do dig the baseball playoffs. I like the tension. And, like the Cup playoffs (and unlike the NCAA tourney), you're dealing with guys playing at the highest level of their sport. But, on the ice, we've had just as many upsets and unexpected heroes as you might find on the diamond. And, yes Dave, you just might find some fourth liners on the ice late in a Game 7. And, if that close game is tied at the end of regulation, we play next goal wins. Overtime is crazy! I can't tell you how many times that I've heard from both diehard and casual hockey fans, "there's nothing like playoff overtime." No, there isn't. There's nothing in sports like the Stanley Cup playoffs.
PINTO FROM BASEBALLMUSINGS:
EJ, I agree 100% on the NCAA and gambling. Take away the office pool and the tournament becomes less interesting. However, I give a lot of credit to the NCAA for realizing this was the reason for their success and expanding the tournament to take advantage of the gambling.
Two months of playoff hockey? You say that as if it were a good thing! Playoffs should be punctuation mark to the season, not a season unto themselves. Baseball, unfortunately, is moving in that direction with more days off between games and series.
Baseball, however, gets the number of teams right. Too few and there's not enough fan interest during the regular season. Too many does the same thing as teams know they are going to playoffs a month ahead of time. While I like to see underdogs do well, I want the champion to have proven something during the regular season. There's something not right about the 12th best team walking away with the trophy.
TURCOTTE (COLLEGE HOOPS):
Bobby Baun was an adult drawing a paycheck when he scored that goal, for which he got paid a nice bonus. When Jai Lewis helped propel George Mason to the Final Four, he was playing to propel his basketball career. Do or die in college hoops means literally that—stay in the tournament or begin your gas-pumping or desk job.
I love a good playoff beard as much as anyone, but let's not fault the kids because they can't physically grow enough facial hair to look homeless at the end of three weeks. NHL players' lumberjack looks during playoff runs only underscore the fact that these dudes are adult pros. Our guys write their names in their fades, because most of them can't grow beards. So when a paid professional like Chris Chelios cries his eyes out lifting the Cup over his head in Detroit, it's nice. And then he goes and recoups in his comfy summer house.
You're right, both the MLB and NHL playoffs feature (mostly) guys at the very top of their sports. They're paid to be, which is why playoff ticket prices are astronomical, and parks and arenas that were mostly empty throughout the season will be half-full of executives in suits eating sushi during the playoffs. The best fans can't get in, and that's a shame. The brackets are an awesome part of the NCAA Tournament and a huge part of why diehard fans, casual fans and even non-fans are paying attention in March. But the brackets and the gambling mean nothing to the college kids who pile into cars each spring and pack 12 to a room in the Super Eight nearest their team's regional, so they can be there in the (free) student section. They have to be there because, in all likelihood, it's their only chance. To Dave's point about the last-second shot never ending up in the wrong hands, it does. That's why Davidson went home last year. And that's why Stephen Curry still can't watch the end of that game tape.
Not for nothing, if the pro playoffs are really about the guys at the highest level of the sport duking it out, then why are the Dodgers playing this week?
PINTO FROM BASEBALLMUSINGS:
The Dodgers are playing because they did a good job of beating up on a weak division in the month of September. The system isn't perfect, but I could imagine worse. For example, including all second place teams, giving byes in the first round to the top two teams in each league. You bring in the Mets and the Twins/White Sox, but also get stuck with the Diamondbacks and Rangers. The Dodgers earned their bid in a weak division, but they earned it nonetheless.
As for money, that's a bug of the NCAA, not a feature. These students earn CBS and the NCAA a ton of money, but need to leave college early to get the big pay day. I'd like to see the NCAA de-regulate scholarships. Schools should be able to offer as many as they like, and boosters can pay players (new cars, new houses) to come to school and stay for four years. It seems these student-athletes are 99% athletes, so pay them for their performance. Then, when they "retire" to do whatever they'll do after their college hoops career, they'll at least be able to go to work in a nice car.
Baun, in case you haven't heard the story before, was carted off the ice after suffering a broken ankle early in Game 6 of the final series. He was literally carted off. Somehow, he returned later in the game. And, amazingly enough, the defensive-minded defender scored the overtime game-winner. You talk about an unlikely hero? To different degrees, you still see stuff like that every spring in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
One other thing about those kids piled into cars for long road trips to see their guys at a regional. There's good news for them. They usually won't have trouble getting in. During the first round of the tournament, I see so many empty seats I wonder if I'm tuned to the right channel. I guess people would rather stay home and click around to update their brackets in HD.
As for baseball, Dave, I don't mind that less worthy teams sometime slip into the playoffs. That happens. I mean, you can't re-arrange the divisions to keep them totally even. Those things run in cycles. What I don't like is what you point out. There's one dynamic for being strong in the regular season and quite another for winning in the postseason. A team that has one big time starter has a better chance in a short series than another with two or three good ones. That just seems a little funny to me. Oh well, I'd like to keep rattling on, but I'm blowing off the Twins-Sox play-in game for the Wings-Habs exhibition tilt from Montreal. You gotta' love those Original Six teams. They just went into OT. See ya' later.