A day last week, October 3 to be exact, marked the 65th anniversary of one of the most memorable moments in American sports — and sorry, Alabama and Auburn fans, it had nothing to do with football.
The setting was the bottom of the ninth inning in the Polo Grounds, the home field of the then-New York Giants, and Bobby Thomson of the Giants hit “the Shot Heard Round the World” — a dramatic three-run homer to beat his team’s cross-town rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Thomson’s home run — and you can hear Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges’ famous call of the hit by Googling it — gave the Giants the rubber game of a three-game playoff and the National League pennant.
In the on-deck circle, the Giants’ 20-year-old center fielder was watching. Alabama (and West Jefferson County) native Willie Howard Mays Jr. would be chosen the National League’s Rookie of the Year for 1951, become known as the Say Hey Kid and go on to become, in the eyes of many, the most complete player in U.S. baseball history. By the time Mays closeted his glove and bat 22 years later, the Giants and Dodgers had abandoned New York for the West Coast, the American League had opted to let teams replace the pitcher’s bat in their lineups with the bat of a designated hitter (DH), two more teams had been added in both the American and National leagues, both leagues had each been divided into two divisions and the division winners met in a postseason series to determine who would represent their league in the World Series.
But one thing had not changed. It was in place when baseball had eight teams in each league in 1951. It was the rule when there were 10 teams in each league when Mays and the Giants tied the Dodgers on the last day of the regular season and beat them in a playoff to win the N.L. pennant in 1962. It also was in place with the division and pennant playoff system that Mays experienced during his last playing year with N.L. champion New York Mets in 1973.
The rule was this: there were no second chances — no wild-card opportunities — for teams that had good or great seasons but failed to finish first. In the pre-division-playoff days, unless teams finished with identical records, there was just one pennant winner in each league. For about 25 years under the division system, unless some teams tied, there were just four winners — those squads that finished first in each league’s two divisions.
If you pay attention to baseball — and I was with a couple of football fans the other day who pay it little or no attention — you know how the regular season and postseason work now. Three divisions exist in each league, and when the regular season ends, the two non-first place teams in each league that have the best winning percentages meet in a one-game playoff, and the winner of that game then plays the league’s top first-place squad in a five-game series. Whoever wins that series will play in a best-of-seven series against the winner of a best-of-five series involving the league’s two other division champs.
Be warned: I’m about to go tilting-at-windmills grumpy here, but I also will be getting to the point of all this. I don’t like the current system, but realist that I am, I do not think that baseball is going to do away with it. But I do think it can be tweaked and made better. I even wrote Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred about it. (I’ve even written Vladimir Putin about some other stuff, but unlike Commissioner Manfred, Putin has not replied.) Anyway, here is the problem, as I see it, and the current playoff season can illustrate it.
The Chicago Cubs, for whom my father once worked as a scout and minor league general manager, had baseball’s best regular season record this year. To use a horseracing image, they roared out of the starting gate and basically never looked back, winning 103 games. At the time of this writing, they had just won a five-game division playoff against the San Francisco Giants, who had won the wild-card playoff game against the Mets. The Cubs had won the first two games in their hallowed home ground of Wrigley Field, lost the first of the series’ next two games in San Fran, then came from behind to win the clincher on Tuesday night. If they had lost, the series would have shifted back to Wrigley.
Congrats to the Small Bears, but there still is something wrong with this picture. Why should the Cubs, with the National League’s best record over 162 games, have been rewarded for that feat only with a one-game advantage in a five-game playoff with a wild-card team? In my view, four of those five games — maybe even the first four — should have been at Wrigley. Granted, the Giants had to play well to earn a wild card spot, but they did not finish first in their division, and they should not have found themselves basically on a par with the Cubs in a playoff. This setup, I think, greatly diminished the Cubs’ regular season achievement. In the past, this setup has diminished other teams’ seasons as well. Now, playing four of five playoff games at the home park of one team does not guarantee that that team will win that playoff. I don’t know if that edge would have helped the American League’s winningest squad, the Texas Rangers, who were swept by the wild-card Toronto Blue Jays. But, in my view, the Rangers still should have had it.
In other words, finishing first should count for more than it does now.
Now I say all this knowing full well that one of the most exciting World Series of my baseball-watching lifetime, that of 2011, was made possible by the wild card system. At that time, there was only one wild-card team in each league, and my team, the St. Louis Cardinals, grabbed the NL wild card spot with a late-season surge that overtook the soon-to-be Cobb County Braves. The Cardinals’ first step toward a World Series title was their defeat of the N.L.’s best team, the Philadelphia Phillies, in a best-of-five division series, and they won game five, 1-0, at the Phillies’ home park. That series was exciting, and the Cardinals’ win in the fifth game was a taut, on the edge of your seat contest from beginning to end. But — I submit that four of the five games should have been at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Because of their regular season performance, the Phillies had earned the right to have it that way.
Fast-forward to 2015. The Cardinals had the N.L.’s best record. They staggered down the stretch, and the young, hungry and red-hot Cubs, who won the one-game Wild Card playoff against the Pittsburgh Pirates, dispatched them three games to one in the divisional playoff, winning one of the contests in St. Louis and the other two at Wrigley. Given the way both teams were playing, the outcome of that series probably would have been the same even if four of the five games were at Busch Stadium in the Lou. But again, the Cardinals had won more games than anyone else, and that feat should have counted for more than the slim advantage they were given against the Cubs.
You know, this problem — and given what is going on here at home and abroad, can this really be called a problem? — is not limited to Major League Baseball. Just look at what happened last season to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. There was all this “excitement” about the Dubs setting a new regular season record for wins. And yeah, they did go to the finals, again, but their great regular season gave them no special advantage in their playoffs, just a one home game edge against the lesser teams like Houston and Portland and a strong rival in Oklahoma City.
As I indicated earlier, I wrote about this matter a few months back to MLB Commissioner Manfred. What I basically said to him is in the prose that preceded this paragraph, but here, with some editing by yours truly, is what he said in his reply:
“Our expansion of the Postseason to 10 Clubs for the 2012 season aimed to increase the incentives for winning a division title in the regular season. By design, the format assures that the three division champions in each League will not see their season end in one game, and thereby creates a more challenging path for the two Wild Card Clubs ….
“A feeling among many in our sport was that under the former system, it was not appropriate that a Division Champion and a Wild Card Club could travel the same road in the Postseason. I believe that the new format has successfully given more rewards for prevailing in the division across 162 games. In my view, it has made September baseball more compelling and has allowed more fans to experience the excitement of playoff chases and October baseball… We believe that this structure is fitting for our game and suits the nature of its regular season.”
Well, I’ll admit that I follow the wild card chases in the fall, and I followed the Cardinals’ unsuccessful effort to grab one of the National League spots this year. But if they had succeeded in grabbing one and if they had won the one-game, wild-card playoff, they still should have had to play the Cubs four times in Wrigleyville, and once in the friendly confines of their home park. In actual fact, however, those confines probably would have been more friendly to the Cubs. The Cardinals’ home record for 2016 was a dismal 38-43, hardly the kind of record that makes you a playoff threat.
Hmm. I wonder what Vladimir Putin thinks about all this. Maybe I’ll write him to find out.
On the other hand, I might have better luck with the Say Hey Kid.