Friday, September 21, 2012

50-50 Raffle

It had to come down to the Brewers and Cardinals, didn't it?

Last year (2011), it was a race for the NL Central Division title, won by the Milwaukee Brewers, followed by a rematch in the NL Championship Series, won by the bad guys.  I mean, excuse me, the St. Louis Cardinals.  (Sorry.  Force of habit.)

This year (2012), it's a race for the second NL Wild Card spot.  Doesn't sound quite as compelling, does it?  Sure, the Wild Card teams have made the playoffs, their possibility of a Galactic Championship still alive.  But what have they won, really?

A coin toss.  A lottery ticket.  A 50-50 raffle.

Random chance.

The Brewers sell 50-50 raffle tickets every home game at Miller Park, with 50% of the proceeds going to the raffle winner and 50% going to the Brewers Community Foundation.  That's different.  That's a win-win. That's the Law of Large Numbers, the outcome roughly predictable over a season. 

This is win-lose.  This is playing 162 major league games in order to subject yourself to a coin toss to see if you go home in shock.  Make no mistake, a single play-in game is a coin toss.  You could be eliminated on the basis of an injury, an umpiring call, a bad hop.  Even if you've won 10 more regular season games than your Wild Card opponent, as the Atlanta Braves might this season, you could go home in three hours.  Even if, as the Brewers are hoping, you tunnel your way out of a disappointing first half with a maniacal stretch drive that lasts for weeks, you could lose one ball in the lights and go home.  Even before your fans see a single home playoff game, scalp one triple-priced ticket, wave one terricloth towel for the cameras, you could be done.

The Wild Card round needs to be a Best of Three elimination series.  Even the College World Series, with far fewer regular season games determining the participants, has a loser's bracket.

I hear your objections. "There's no time on the television calendar!" say football-besotten television sports executives, and those who carry their water.  To which I reply: Really?  Two days, not possible?  Two fewer split-squad games in the spring?  You can't drive your Jag back from Florida two days earlier?

"The excitement of a single, sudden-death game trumps all!"  These are the people who think a penalty shoot-out in hockey or penalty kicks to decide a soccer contest make for superior television to a clutch goal with time expiring in overtime.

"Teams play crucial elimination games in every round!"  Yes, but not in Game 1.  Baseball is an ebb and flow, the build-up of a season -- or a playoff series -- to a climax.  It's seeing if a slumping player can pull out of a slump just once in October.  It's needing several members of a starting rotation to succeed, not just a single ace.  It's planning relievers over a multiple-game series in order not to overextend and overuse them.  It's enjoying prolonged excellence and series-long narratives.  The two-team battle leading to a deciding Game 5 or Game 7 enhances the week-long drama.  Those elimination games mean something more, at least to the discerning sports fan, than simply deciding who advances.

Moreover, imagine the lower season-long investment in player payroll that many baseball owners will likely commit to if the most positive result they can foresee from competing is a 50-50 coin toss.  In MBA-speak, that's like slashing the expected value of having a good team by one-half.  Owners like Pittsburgh's Bob Nutting might never invest in an A.J. Burnett on the free agent market again.

Make a deal with you, Major League Baseball executives: if MLB agrees to expand the Wild Card round to Best of Three, I'll agree that you can cut the MLB League Championship Series back to a Best of Five.  Fair enough?  Just keep your hands off the Best of Seven World Series, alright?

We're all reasonable people here.  We all want what's best for the game.  Like everyone else in the game, from the Commissioner's Office to the Player's Association to the networks, we can all choose to honor Major League Baseball's time-honored motto, courtesy of Red Green:

I'm a man, but I can change.  If I have to.  I guess.

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