- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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We always hate to deliver bad news to our favorite commish, Bud Selig, when he's feeling sunnier than the entire island of Aruba. But here goes:
If the commish really wants home-field advantage in the World Series to continue being tied to the results of the All-Star Game, he can't just snap his fingers and make it happen.
Nope, to make this vision work, Bud Selig has some work to do. And some concessions to make.
When the players agreed to try this All-Star experiment for two years, it sure wasn't because they liked the idea. Au contraire. They mostly hated it then. And they don't hate it much less now.
The players didn't say yes to this format because they think their man Bud is a nice guy. And they clearly didn't say yes because they think this is a sensible way to help determine a champion in their sport.
No, they agreed to try it for one reason, and one reason only: Because the TV people from Fox, who have to televise this game, asked them to. Period.
"We showed an appreciation for the business side of the sport," says Mets player rep Al Leiter. "We understand that that 2½ billion dollars (Fox paid for the TV contract over six years) doesn't just show up by magic. So we agreed to do it, on a trial basis."
That trial, however, is now over. And even though Selig said unequivocally this week that he has no serious interest in any other system, the players have other ideas.
And they want to be heard.
And between now and the next All-Star Game, they will be heard.
"We agreed to try it," says former NL player rep Tom Glavine. "But obviously, we didn't agree to try it indefinitely."
What players want is clear: They want home-field advantage in the World Series to be determined by what happens during the season, not what happens during an exhibition game.
"Most players will tell you," Glavine says, "that they want home field decided by whichever team has the best record during the regular season."
Selig insists he has heard from "a number of players who told me just the opposite." But in our survey of players at the All-Star Game this week, we couldn't find even one player who sided with the commish on this.
But Selig says there are "deeper issues" at stake, because baseball's "customers" love this All-Star format. So what, he asked, "should we tell them -- that we don't care what they want? Those days are over in this sport."
Well, the customers just watched Roger Clemens give up six runs in the first inning Tuesday night, and then decided this was a game, regardless of format, that was worthy of the lowest ratings in All-Star Game history.
Selig's side, not surprisingly, is citing data which shows that viewing was up until the game turned into a wipeout, that more total viewers actually watched this game than any All-Star Game in five years and that ratings were up among customers aged 18 to 49.
But is that enough of a mandate to convince players to extend the "experiment?" Not unless MLB makes a truly compelling argument -- or is, at least, willing to talk about the players' other ideas on both the All-Star Game and the postseason.
In the short term, players have told us they probably would be willing to discuss just some modest changes in the postseason set-up. These would be the two most significant of those issues:
1) Seeding: Players don't understand why the wild-card team doesn't face the team with the best overall record in the first round, even if that team comes from the same division. Baseball's logic, until now, is that it wouldn't have been right for, say, the 2003 Braves to finish 10 games ahead of the Marlins during the season, then essentially have that entire race wiped out and be sent right back to have to beat Florida again in a best-of-five series. Players, on the other hand, don't see how it was any more reasonable to make the Braves face a Cubs team that was just as formidable.
2) Scheduling: Players understand that TV wants an attractive prime-time playoff game as many nights as possible in October. But players question why one first-round series every year has two off days instead of one (with games Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday). Players think that format creates a greater chance of an upset, because it allows an underdog to pitch its ace twice in the first four games. Players also are looking for an alternative to the format of last year's Boston-Oakland series, which forced the teams to play Games 4 and 5 on opposite coasts with no travel day.
Would management be willing to re-examine those issues in exchange for extending the All-Star Game agreement? Seems like a reasonable tradeoff. But ...
This case still wouldn't be closed.
If players agreed to trade an All-Star extension for playoff changes in either or both of those areas, that extension probably would run only through the end of this labor deal in 2006. Then some far more radical ideas would be tossed onto the table. Such as:
Changing the All-Star Game, at least occasionally, from league-versus-league to a United States team versus a World team.
Extending the Division Series from best-of-five to best-of-seven.
Shortening the regular season to 154 games.
Adding two, and possibly four, teams to the playoff field.
The All-Star Game idea is the change least likely to happen. But the others already are being actively kicked around by Selig's "Major League Baseball in the 21st Century" task force, which includes a glittering array of current and former baseball and union officials, players, media giants and business people.
But while that group examines the practicality and potential appeal of a dramatic change in the baseball postseason, players continue to discuss that idea among themselves. And it appears there is quite a bit of interest in a format which Leiter has actually presented to the 21st Century committee. It would go like this:
Six teams would make the playoffs in each league -- three division winners and three wild-card teams.
The two division winners with the best record in each league then would receive first-round byes.
The four remaining teams would be seeded by record, with the division winner playing the wild card with the worst record, and the 4 and 5 seeds facing each other.
The first round would be a best-of-three series, with all three games in the city of the clubs with the best record. No travel. No off days.
The two survivors would move on to the Division Series, which would expand to best-of-seven.
The League Championship Series and World Series wouldn't change.
Leiter's pitch for this idea is that baseball needs to reach out beyond those traditionalist fans "who think we should go back to the 1950s, with two leagues, no divisions and eight teams in each league." The fans baseball needs to lure into into the fold are the fans who are spending Saturday afternoons watching skateboarding."
"We have to move forward," he says. "We have to be progressive. We have to have inventive ideas."
So they want inventive? He'll give them inventive.
Why best-of-three in the first round, and no travel days? Because that would add one more one giant obstacle for playoff teams with the worst regular-season records to overcome to get to the World Series, Leiter says.
Under the current system, it isn't much harder for an 87-win wild card to reach the World Series than it is for a 108-win division champ. But Leiter believes that giving first-round byes to dominant teams and forcing marginal playoff teams to survive a three-game-in-three-days test, possibly with no home games, "would clearly put those teams at a disadvantage."
The 21st-century committee, however, has kicked around another proposal, which originated with the Elias Sports Bureau's Steve Hirdt, to add one playoff team in each league and have the two wild cards play a one-game playoff if they want to advance.
That would create even more of a disadvantage, because it would force those teams to use their best pitchers just to advance and make it impossible to start them twice in the next round.
But Leiter says that if players are asked to approve that system, "it absolutely won't go through." Players, he says, believe a one-game playoff is unfair, even though one-game playoffs have been used to decide regular-season ties for a century.
Beyond that first round, players clearly prefer that all rounds be best-of-seven. But adding up to five more playoff games means the season would have to be shortened, most likely to 154 games.
That, of course, creates issues involving contracts and TV agreements based on a 162-game season. But Selig has suggested in the past those issues are resolveable.
The question is: What would management's reaction be to a playoff system that is radically different from the current format?
Selig admits he was interested in expanding the playoffs as recently as last year. But he changed his mind after last October's ratings shot up like the NASDAQ.
Now, he says, "I won't tell you I'm not open-minded. But unless some compelling reason comes up, I think we're just going to stay where we are for a while."
But baseball's opposition might be based on more than ratings and time frames.
"One of the concerns about extending the playoffs," says Sandy Alderson, MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations, "is not what it does to the postseason time line -- but what it does to the nature of competition during the regular season."
What baseball is concerned about, Alderson says, is that, if too many teams make the playoffs, it could actually lessen the meaning and the drama of the season instead of adding to it -- as baseball believes the current wild-card structure has done.
Had Leiter's system been in effect last year, for example, 86 wins would have been enough to earn a wild-card spot in each league -- instead of 91 (Marlins) and 95 (Red Sox).
That means the Yankees, Braves and Giants essentially would have clinched their playoff reservations in early September -- eliminating them from most of the stretch-drive drama, while focusing it on teams that were barely over .500. So the worry, Alderson says, is that "whenever you add excitement one place, you diminish the excitement somewhere else."
Alderson says the 21st-century committee "highly appreciated" Leiter's proposal. But the question about it baseball needs to debate, he says, is: "Does it add to the overall image of the game or detract from it?"
Leiter, however, thinks the way to keep interest focused on the best teams is to dangle those first-round byes in front of them. That would create a potentially riveting race within the race among the division winners.
And there's another way to maintain that drama, too, he says -- award home-field advantage in the World Series to the team with the best record.
"That's something else to compete for," he says. "If that's what's at stake, it's a reason for those teams to play their best players right through to the last game of the year."
But that, of course, brings us full-circle. Because that's what Selig isn't prepared to do -- since it pulls the plug on his favorite All-Star brainstorm.
So just when you thought baseball had reached that long-sought era of good feeling, it's clear there's still plenty for management and the union to argue about -- now and for years to come. Great. We can hardly wait.
The players' union isn't for continuing the present All-Star Game format, but favors changes to the playoff system.