In Selig’s Playoffs Only Money Talks

published November 1, 2010

In a short series, anything can happen.

In a short series, Madison Bumgarner and Colby Lewis can pitch better than Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum; Juan Uribe can bat .133 yet be a hero in consecutive games; Cody Ross can have an OPS of .950 while the Texas trio of Hamilton, Guerrero, and Cruz compiles a .143 average and five RBIs.

In a short series, Don Larsen can pitch the best game ever; Al Weis can hit as many home runs as Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, and Boog Powell combined; David Eckstein can stand tall; Roger Clemens can come up short.

So if your World Series prediction is in tatters and your analysis proved faulty (like mine), remember these seven words:

In a short series, anything can happen.

Sure, the low-octane Giants offense can score twenty runs in two games at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park.  Of course we can see two taut, well-pitched affairs in the Rangers’ Arlington bandbox.  It doesn’t have to make sense.  It’s baseball.  It’s a short series.  Things happen, and then we make up reasons.

Which makes it all the more distressing that Bud Selig is talking about expanding the playoffs.

The postseason is baseball junk food –dramatic, intensified, vivid, satisfying in the short term.  It determines a champion, but it makes different demands than the long season that precedes it.  The bench is not as important; pitching is more so, but depth in pitching isn’t.  You can win a World Series on the strength of two starting pitchers and a closer.  The 1987 Minnesota Twins showed how (Frank Viola, Bert Blyleven, and Jeff Reardon), while the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks went one step further and won it without bothering with the closer (Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and… Byung-Hyun Kim?).

Over the course of 162 games, a team’s strengths emerge and its weaknesses are ruthlessly exposed.  The day-in, day-out nature of the sport lets the breaks even out and puts fluke performances in their place.

The longer the playoffs go, the longer ago the season feels, and the less important the wins and losses that defined it.  Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and Cincinnati had very successful seasons, winning their divisions and winning an average of eleven more games than the year before.  For the Reds, it was their first division title in fifteen years; the Rays were just one win behind their best record ever; the Twins had their second-highest win total of a decade in which they won the AL Central six times.

Their seasons ended three weeks ago; do their fans even remember the accomplishments, or do they feel as defeated as the followers of the Mariners, Orioles, and D-Backs?

So why does Major League Baseball want to put even greater emphasis on the nineteen (or twenty-one, or – please, no – twenty-eight) games a team might play in the postseason, diminishing the value of the 162 that come before it?

There’s only one reason: money.

MLB can sell the postseason on a national level.  For now, at least, there are networks willing to put up billions of dollars for the right to telecast the playoffs in primetime.

The regular season belongs to the individual teams, and the money to be made there is local.  Huge, in the case of teams in the biggest markets, especially those that have their own networks, but local nonetheless.  From the standpoint of the national broadcasters, the regular season is a necessary evil.

For a piece of the postseason, and the hope of big ratings and a promotional vehicle heading into November sweeps, Fox and TBS ponied up $3 billion in a seven-year deal that expires in 2013.

Keep that date in mind as the trial balloons go wafting across the MLB sky.

The current labor agreement expires in 2011.  If Commissioner Selig wants to expand the playoffs, he’ll have to get the union to go along.  And why wouldn’t he?  So what if important games will be played on November nights better suited for snuggling by a fire than controlling a curveball?   The baseball business has never been so profitable.

Once the union acquiesces, the negotiations will start in earnest.  The economy is in a far different state than it was in 2006, the year of the last TV contracts.  But MLB has an option it didn’t have back then, one that will give it considerable leverage: its own cable network, along with the internet presence of

The regular season is for the most serious fans, but an extra round of playoffs held back from network sale?  That’s must-see

Never mind that it devalues the season, and that it multiplies the importance of timing and luck.  Forget about the potentially miserable playing conditions, the late starts, the intensified workload for the bullpens in particular.  The economic factors don’t merely trump the sporting ones, they obliterate them.

Selig’s most recent extension as Commissioner takes him through 2012; the shape of the revised postseason and the electronic landscape that will carry it will be determined before that contract runs out.

“By the time I leave,” he declared in 2008, “you won’t recognize the sport.”

I believe him.  And I think he’s a lot happier about it than we’re going to be.

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