I woke up sometime between 3 and 4 a.m. this morning with baseball clogged in my head. I suppose it could have been due to the four playoff games I overdosed on yesterday, split-screening two of them at once a few times and occasionally hopping to a third game on a third channel, like an archaeologist running between multiple digs at Karnak. And it wasn’t just because the games were thrilling—one of them was a rout and another an unbearable, impotent slog—but it was because the results were purely stupefying.
This is the first season MLB voted to include a dozen teams in the postseason playoff tournament. Like nearly everything they do these days, it was a choice motivated by greed. The league has a vast array of problems, starting with hitters being incapable of making contact (see Houston vs. Seattle, 18 innings), the insertion of fan gambling into the broadcasts and ballparks, horrific ball-and-strike umpiring because the on-screen technology is so advanced it now repeatedly makes them look foolish, and idiotic TV blackout rules that keep baseball fans I know in Iowa from watching games for at least three teams in neighboring states.
I had to flip away from the Astros-Mariners marathon in Seattle about five times, because watching the home batters crush the hopes of their loyal, glory-starved fans was just too painful. Most of today’s hitters, largely obsessed with launch angles and pimping home runs for the nightly highlight shows, have lost the ability or desire to do anything else but swing for the fences. Over and over again, as the game dragged into endless extra innings, the Mariner batters flailed away at pitch after pitch purposely thrown out of the strike zone by a parade of Astro relievers, when all they had to do was shorten up on the bat and try and go with the pitch for an actual single with the winning run standing out at second or third base. When Houston finally won the game with a solo homer by a rookie in the 18th, I was immersed in another game, and happy that I was.
The bigger takeaway from yesterday was that with two more playoff teams added to each league mix, and the 162-game regular season made more meaningless than ever, MLB has unwittingly created Wild Card Monsters. Three of the four lower-seeded teams were forced to play all three of their wild card games on the road, and what it did was focus the crap out of them, enabling the Phillies, Padres, and Mariners to pull off surprising sweeps of the Cardinals, Mets, and Blue Jays. Now the Phillies and Padres have gone on to unseat the Braves, winners of 101 games, and the Dodgers, winners of 111 in the division series, with the Cleveland Guardians on the verge of another possible upset against the 99-victory Yankees. Shocking turn-of-events do make for great drama, and we’ve had that in spades this weekend.
But I disagree with the great Joe Posnanski, who wrote that in creating chaos, the new playoff system “has worked precisely as it was designed.” Are you serious? The system, with its built-in byes for the four best teams, was designed solely to put the Yankees and Dodgers in the World Series for maximum TV ratings. The last thing FOX wants is a Guardians-Padres Fall Classic where they can’t feature Aaron Judge in every promo ad. Did you notice that when Judge was chasing the American League home run record, the MLB Network showed an entire Yankee game every night for a week and a half? They could have just cut in from a different, more relevant game or their studio programming whenever Judge came up to bat, but nope. THE ENTIRE GAME was aired. Would they have shown entire Twins games for a week and a half if he was playing in Minnesota? Doubtful.
Anyway, the Phillies and Padres’ rabid fan bases became energized by this format like they never have before, the players on those teams were fueled to victory by them, and it’s likely to make the National League Championship Series a loud, memorable event. I can’t wait. Some have said the five-day layoff for the top-seeded teams worked against them in the division series round, but I disagree. It was the new playoff system kick-starting the underdog clubs into high gear. The Dodgers, who won the NL West by 22 games, didn’t have to play one crucial must-win series all season and were certainly not prepared to face the pressure of a delirious road crowd in San Diego the last two days.
No, MLB did not get what they bargained for at all, but fans of the “smaller market” teams sure as hell have.