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Last week commissioner Bud Selig (page 70) said baseball is "moving inexorably" toward another expansion of the postseason, most likely adding a second wild-card team to each league in 2012 to bring the total number of playoff teams to 10. The change will drive a stake through the heart of the last great regular season in professional sports. By matching up wild-card teams in a one-game or best-of-three playoff—the result of which might as well be determined by a coin flip—baseball will finally destroy any notion that regular-season excellence matters. The extra round will reduce the sport's 162-game season to the same level as its NFL, NBA and NHL counterparts: a seeding process.
This development continues Selig's insistence on prioritizing October at the expense of September, a practice that has killed off divisional races between excellent teams. It is the latest of these lost Septembers, the 2010 AL East race between the Yankees and the Rays, that intensified calls for change. Both teams, having locked up postseason berths with weeks to play, treated the season's final weeks as a warmup for October. That they valued being rested, healthy and on rotation for the playoffs more than the AL East title is sensible. The Yankees and the Rays were responding, correctly so, to the incentives in place.
An expanded postseason would create even greater problems. It's easy to imagine a scenario in which the two best teams in the league play hard for a division title in an effort to stay out of the Coin Flip Round, while the league's fifth-best team (the second wild card) cruises into that round with a comfortable lead over the sixth-best club. Team A could outplay Team B by 10 or 12 games over the regular season, then be shoved into a short playoff series against it—with Team B being rested and on rotation simply because it wasn't good enough to challenge for a division title. The results of 162 games could be tossed out in a couple of afternoons.
You don't incentivize teams to win a division by creating a postseason berth for the fifth-best team in the league; fixing a problem created by the wild card by adding a wild card is like treating lung cancer with a pack of Marlboros. You do so by making winning the division valuable again, the way it was from 1969 through '93. The real answer here is to eliminate the wild card, making the three division titles in each league the only paths to October. (The team with the league's best record would go straight to the LCS.) Yes, you lose six to 10 postseason games per season—one Division Series in each league—but the lost games would primarily be the least-watched ones, played at off times in weekday slots. In exchange you get back a meaningful September, with great teams battling for division titles that mean everything, the way they did for so many years. Take last year's AL East, with the plucky Rays trying to hold off the high-paid Yankees over the season's final month, with lots of head-to-head matchups. Think that wouldn't have led SportsCenter every night?
What makes baseball great is a long, meaningful regular season with real pennant races. Don't kill the regular season for one week in October, Bud. Save it.
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