Baseball Learns to Be More Like Football

Illustration by Jing Wei Close

Illustration by Jing Wei

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Illustration by Jing Wei

It happens every year.

Sometime around the All-Star break in July, when the committed fan has already logged, say, 100 hours of baseball, the pace of the game starts to feel less leisurely than excruciating. Boredom sets in. The remainder of the season beckons with all the dramatic promise of an Andy Warhol film or a Sweeny Murti disquisition.

Then, in September, baseball snaps us to attention. Teams that had seemed destined for the postseason are suddenly struggling to stay alive; teams that seemed utterly out of contention are fighting for a playoff spot. Just like that, we are watching the game with fresh eyes, and those 10-pitch at- bats that were agonizing a month ago are once again exhilarating.

Last year, of course, gave us one of the most exciting finishes in Major League Baseball history, courtesy of the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves, who both capped monthlong collapses with improbable losses on the season’s final day -- the Braves in 13 innings, the Red Sox surrendering a lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. This won’t happen again, not just for the Red Sox, who are out of it, but for the game itself. (Even for the Sox, a choke of this magnitude was truly historic.)

Bud’s Grace

But the end of the 2012 season is looking pretty good, too, especially in the National League. No fewer than seven teams are competing for the final playoff spot, including the Philadelphia Phillies and the Milwaukee Brewers, who both made moves in late July that seemed -- to those of us who were still awake, anyway -- to indicate that they were basically giving up on the season.

They are alive now not by the grace of God, but by the grace of Bud, as in Commissioner Bud Selig, who decided last year to add two more wild-card spots to baseball’s playoffs, bringing the number of postseason teams to 10. In each league, the two wild-card winners will face off in a single-elimination game to be played two days after the regular season ends.

Baseball purists have taken great offense at this. They look at the two weeks ahead and see not the prospect of a lot of exciting, meaningful baseball games, but the further sullying of our national pastime, which has for a while now been gradually adding more teams to the postseason.

They look at this playoff inflation and bemoan the end of the “pennant race,” those heady days when a fan could only hope that baseball’s endless slog of a season would improbably produce two teams in a single division with nearly identical records. They condemn the “mediocrity” rewarded by the new system. (Imagine, a team that’s barely over .500 might make the playoffs!?)

It’s worth mentioning that wild-card teams have not, historically speaking, been mediocre. They played in the World Series every year from 2002 to 2007, and won it in 2002, 2003 and 2004. The reigning world champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, were a wild-card team.

It’s also worth mentioning that adding a wild-card team to each league will actually make winning the division more important, thus increasing the odds of a tight pennant race. After all, the alternative means basically being compelled to pitch your best starter in a must-win wild-card game -- and losing him for the first game or two of the divisional series.

Most of all, it’s worth remembering that the subject under discussion is baseball. Whatever comfort the game’s poets have found in the immutability of its structure, we are not talking about amending the Constitution. We’re talking about giving two more teams a chance to play baseball a little deeper into October.

Bud’s Strategy

No one has any illusions about Selig’s motivations: His game has the great misfortune of moving toward its yearly climax just as professional football, the most popular and profitable sport in the U.S., is getting started. He is trying desperately to raise the stakes of September baseball. If he can’t compete with the national appeal of the NFL, he can at least give more fans in more places a reason to resist the siren’s song of concussive collisions taking place just a few clicks away.

Selig is trying to do so by stealing a play from the NFL itself, which sends 12 of its 32 teams to the playoffs every year. Baseball will never be football. (Not even football can be football for much longer, but that’s a subject for another day.) Baseball can learn, however, from the NFL’s wildly successful economic model, which in part relies on encouraging fans to gorge themselves on an all-you-can-eat postseason buffet.

More than anything, baseball’s new wild-card system is a sign that the game, like any smart business, is evolving in an effort to keep pace with the increased metabolism of today’s sports fans and to help offset the payroll disparity among its franchises. It’s simple math. Creating two more playoff spots will give small-market teams two more chances at the postseason.

Once they get there, anything can happen. This may be an affront to the game’s purists, who would prefer to see only the strongest survive until October. But why not reward your fans for making it through their summer-long endurance test, too?

(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to the New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,” “The Challenge,” and “Death Comes to Happy Valley.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Mahler at jmahler11@bloomberg.net or @jonathanmahler on Twitter.

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