Straightening out the Twisted Road to the World Series: Why Is It So Difficult for Major League Baseball to Implement an Equitable Playoff System?

By Barrett, Wayne M. | USA TODAY, November 2015 | Go to article overview

Straightening out the Twisted Road to the World Series: Why Is It So Difficult for Major League Baseball to Implement an Equitable Playoff System?


Barrett, Wayne M., USA TODAY


"TO BE THE BEST, you have to beat the best"--unless, of course, we are -A. discussing the baseball playoffs, as the MLB seeding system this season saw to it that the teams with the three best records in baseball--the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Chicago Cubs--faced off against each other in the early rounds, so that only one was left standing come the National League Championship Series. What a shame. This is not to say that the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club (doesn't that sound better than Mets?) would not have qualified for their first World Series in 15 years. Rather, it is to point out that the road to the modern-day Fall Classic is fraught with injustice.

Let's indulge in a little backtracking to understand better how the national pastime reached this point. For more than half a century, the formula was simple: two eight-team leagues (National and American) engaged in a 154-game regular season, with each team playing every other club the same amount of times. The first-place team (or pennant-winners) in each circuit then met in a best-of-seven World Series. (Yes, there were a few best-of-nine WS encounters sprinkled in, but that's a history lesson for another day.)

In 1961, the AL added two teams. A year later, the NL followed suit (the Mets, incidentally, being one of those 1962 expansion franchises). The regular season was upped to 162 games to accommodate the scheduling of the extra clubs.

Come 1969, professional baseball celebrated its centennial by expanding yet again, adding two more teams in each league, prompting a new setup, whereby each circuit had two six-team divisions--East and West. (We will overlook the fact that the geography, in the National League, at least, was off, with the Atlanta Braves planted in the West, while Chicago and St. Louis found themselves in the East.) The symmetry of the schedule, however, remained ideal. From Opening Day until Sept. 1, each team played every other team 12 times via a quartet of three-game series, two at home and a pair on the road. In the season's final month, division rivals played each other exclusively six times apiece--one three-game series at home and another on the road--to bring the indivision total to 18.

This ensured that division titles were won from a pool of teams playing the same schedule (unlike today, which is marred by the tradition-averse, no-rhyme-or-reason interleague play slate). It also had the added benefit of enhancing the playoff races--clearly, at this point, the term "pennant race" no longer applies--as clubs were assured the opportunity to play against division foes down the stretch (again, unlike today), which is how the Mets, for instance, vaulted from cellar dwellers on Aug. 31 to East Division champions when the curtain went down on the 1973 season.

Whenever leagues start breaking into divisions, the more-is-less syndrome is bound to rear its ugly head. The 1973 San Francisco Giants, (and there certainly are other examples) had a better record than the Mets, but failed to qualify for the postseason. (To be fair, this criticism is tempered somewhat by the fact that, technically, the Giants were not in competition with the Mets for a playoff berth, but rather the other five teams in the West Division.) Ultimately, the Mets, at 82-79, went on to win the NL pennant by defeating the Cincinnati Reds (99-63) in the NLCS. No World Series participant ever entered the Fall Classic with so low (.509) a winning percentage.

While the old athletic axiom, "the best team always wins, just look at the scoreboard" is somewhat suspect if given thorough scrutiny, a short series, especially in an every-day-for-six-months sport such as baseball, can lead to all sorts of unexpected results, a la 1973 (although the baseball gods evened the score 33 years later when the Mets (97-65) lost the NLCS to the Cards (83-78), who went on to capture the World Series with the lowest winning percentage (. …

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