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Pondering the postseason

Posted: Wed April 29, 1998

This fact may not have come up on your radar screen, but this last week has owned the distinction of having had more playoff games played than ever before in the history of the athletic Republic.

Thanks to the Olympics, which rearranged the National Hockey League schedule, the NHL and the National Basketball Association have been aligned. Playoff games proliferate.

For the many purists who disapprove of playoffs as cheap thrills, this has, of course, been a dreadful time. But, tough. Playoffs are an established part of sports today, and, I would even submit, they're a fair reflection of a changed American culture.

In olden times, winners and losers, like the rest of life, were better defined. Nowadays, we are all more blurred, living transient lives of little loyalty. So it shouldn't hold that just because a team lost in what is called the "regular season," its existence should be thereafter concluded till next year. Rather, all the regular season has come to do is determine your pecking order in what is known as the "postseason." That is, the real season—the playoffs.

For a long time, people like me who liked the playoffs were afraid to admit it, because playoffs were supposed to be illegitimate, instant-gratification stuff. Baseball ruled then, and baseball knew the only right way, and baseball decreed that only a World Series between two pure champions was proper postseason behavior. Baseball people would snort that the NBA played —this was the expression—"80 games just to eliminate the New York Knicks."

The Knicks weren't very good then.

The NHL was considered even more of a farce, because two-thirds of the six teams made the playoffs. Everybody with a baseball pedigree would hoot and snicker at such a bogus downscale system.

The only thing was that the playoffs made money. The only other thing was that everybody really, truly enjoyed the playoffs. Best-of-seven. What a wonderful expression. Best-of-seven. It conjures up the same warm images as cookies-and-milk or free period or upgrade or stacked or deduction or ... homecourt advantage.

Actually, baseball purists neatly forgot that it was baseball that had invented playoffs. A man named Frank Shaughnessy saved the minor leagues in the Depression with playoffs. But then, for a long time, too, the National Football League was afraid to look as schlocky as basketball and hockey. And then some genius came up with the phrase wild card. A wild-card team sounded like it had the kind of validity that runner-up didn't. Overnight, all the runners-up in the NFL became wild cards and football playoffs boomed.

Eventually, baseball had to break down and call its runners-up wild cards too, and invent its own playoffs. So in the end, we found out that baseball wasn't just traditional. It was simply slow, and backwards.

The playoffs really started as a sideshow. But now they're the big tent, aren't they? In a world of short attention spans, all we have to figure out now is how to eliminate the regular season and go right to the playoffs. Also, while we're at it, I'd like to get rid of the regular games and jump directly to overtime.

These commentaries, which appear each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, are posted weekly by CNN/SI.

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