In 14 years since Major League Baseball introduced expanded playoffs, the baseball postseason stands apart from similar productions by other sports and especially from its own regular season.
In no other sport is the regular season less instructive about how the playoffs will develop. Count it as one more indication, among many, about how differently we think today.
Some of us older than 40 still couldn’t suppress a wince when the Los Angeles Dodgers, who entered the postseason with the worst record among eight playoffs clubs, finished a three-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs, who rang up the National League’s best record. We find that troubling.
We still think the best club from each league should play in the World Series. We hate to see six months of baseball undone in three days. During those moments, we’re hopelessly out of touch.
During moments of clarity, we can and have celebrated the playoffs and World Series for what they’ve become, which is a stand-alone, made-for-TV spectacle that will produce a winner, though that winner might not be one of the best three or four clubs in baseball. It could be the best club in baseball, the winner of a wild card lottery or the best from a bad division.
All that matters is that the regular season matters not one bit once it’s determined which clubs survive to the playoffs. Once the playoffs begin, those 162-game performances we so cleverly mine for predictions reveal nothing except that we’re fools for thinking 162 games will be faithfully mirrored in three days.
On four occasions this season, the Cubs endured losing streaks of three games or more. In every case, they started the streak in first place and ended it there.
The Cubs lost three-game sweeps to the Chicago White Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros. Each was a blip on the screen.
But when the Cubs happened to lose three straight against the Dodgers in the playoffs, their season turned into sudden failure, as if they really weren’t a very good ball club at all. Such remarks are equally out of touch.
And, by the way, the Dodgers won three straight or more eight times this year, so that’s not an upset either. It’s baseball. It happens all the time, which is why the best-of-five series, combined with expanded playoffs, is more likely to reflect the randomness of any season than the specific traits of the season just ended.
The old timer finds it preposterous that the Dodgers are even in the playoffs. He blames it on a geographical happenstance in an over-divided NL, where four other clubs with better winning percentages missed the playoffs (as did three in the AL). An NL sensibly divided in two would pit the Cubs against the Philadelphia Phillies, while the same kid of AL division would place the Rays against the Los Angeles Angels.
But the circus promoter attuned to the present sensibility loves putting the Dodgers in the playoffs for so many reasons, however it happened. They deliver the Los Angeles media market, obviously, and they build that indispensable “Cinderella story” into the postseason. Indeed, they’re a treasure trove of story lines, the best of which emerge if they should meet the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
Imagine how that scenario buttresses the notion that baseball is always about the New York Yankees. You have the hated Yankee rivals, the Red Sox, going against a Dodgers club managed by deposed Yankee manager Joe Torre and spurred to the playoffs by the arrival of Red Sox malcontent Manny Ramirez. The Red Sox say they’re a better “team” without Ramirez, and maybe they are, but the Dodgers certainly are a better team with him.
Except for a late August hitting slump, the Dodgers scored like a regular ball club after picking up Ramirez in a three-way deal with the Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates at the trading deadline. With Ramirez for the last third of their season, they won 30 games, which projects to 90 wins for the entire season. And that’s probably a better indication of what they are; they’re not really an 84-78 club right now.
The Dodgers deserve a little credit. They saw the situation in front of them, knew they just needed to nudge past .500 to enter the playoffs, knew that entering the playoffs threw their chances wide open — and they made the deal, which would have been affordable for any club willing to take the chance. In his 53 games with the Dodgers, Ramirez drove in 53 runs with 17 homers and a stellar OPS of 1.226. He batted .396. He changed the club.
Maybe the playoffs aren’t the test of excellence posed by a 162-game regular season, but that’s not what they’re about. Most usefully, the playoffs are a hedge against marketplace inequities that enable the Yankees to spring $200 million for player payroll while other clubs don’t do that much in total revenues.
With expanded playoffs, it doesn’t matter if the Yankees pay $200 million for players because during the week that counts the $200 million club might not be as good as the $80 million club down the street. The expanded playoffs are a lifeline for clubs like the Reds, who will never be able to afford the most expensive talent. If they can just cobble together enough victory to reach the playoffs, they’re in the lottery.
Exactly 40 years ago, in 1968, the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers embarked on the last World Series between the regular season champions from the National and American leagues. MLB was set to divide its leagues and embark on playoffs the next year. Purists objected that excellence would be punished.
The purists were right. Back then, you didn’t get to the World Series without a club that proved it through time. Now a club can go to the World Series if it’s just a little better than average.
Last year, the Colorado Rockies entered the World Series after barely reaching 90 regular season wins because of an incredible 15-game winning streak at the tail end. In each of the two years right before, clubs went to the World Series with fewer than 90 regular season wins.
The baseball regular season remains the most meaningful in American sports because it still eliminates the most teams. Beyond that, the regular season is over now, which is why there are no upsets, only survivors.
At the end of October, we might not see the best club, but we’ll always see a winner.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: firstname.lastname@example.org