Commentary

Looking for missing World Series magic

Updated: October 21, 2008, 3:23 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Whatever happened to the World Series?

Whatever happened to the unforgettable, seven-game classics of yesteryear that held us spellbound for a week -- until along came Jack Morris or Luis Gonzalez or Bill Mazeroski to transform this event from sports to poetry.

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Whatever happened to World Series like THAT?

We sure haven't witnessed any like that in a long, long time. Way, way too long a time, in fact. Since Josh Beckett left the mound in glory in October 2003, the past four World Series have been more about monotony than poetry.

The LONGEST World Series, out of the past four, went five games. Five. That was back in 2006, when Kenny Rogers and his pine-tarred left hand saved the Tigers from four-and-out infamy.

The other three World Series in that span -- 2004, 2005 and 2007 -- were all four-game obliterations, over faster than you could say, "Have a nice winter."

So as we look ahead to this World Series, it sure wouldn't take a whole lot for the Phillies and Rays to raise the bar, because that bar is at an all-time low.

This is the first time since 1913 to 1916 that four consecutive World Series have lasted no more than five games. And this is the first time ever that we've seen three Series sweeps in four years.

So out of the past four World Series, the four champions have lost a total of one game. One. Which means we're at the lowest ebb ever in what used to be sports' ultimate shootout.

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
Jeff Lewis/US PresswireRyan Howard has done a lot of standing around the past few days as he and the Phillies wait for the World Series to get started.
Whatever happened to the World Series?

It's a question worth asking, now more than ever. And there may be an actual explanation, one we've written about before.

This is the 14th postseason since the invention of wild cards stretched October into a three-tiered marathon. This is also the second postseason since baseball super-stretched October by another half-week in the name of (A) ratings and (B) making sure that Evan Longoria and Shane Victorino wouldn't get in the way of "House" airing in its regularly scheduled time slot.

So how's that working out? Uh, not so hot. Here's the evidence:

• Only three of the past 10 World Series have made it to a Game 6. And only two (2001 and 2002) reached a Game 7. So that means seven of the past 10 were either sweeps or five-gamers. Not good.

• Going back further, since the postseason expanded to three rounds in 1995, just three World Series (23 percent) have featured a Game 7, and less than half of those 13 World Series (six) have even lasted until Game 6.

• Now compare that to the previous incarnation of division play, when the postseason had only two rounds. In the 25 years under that format, 64 percent of all World Series (16 of 25) went at least six games. And 40 percent (10 of 25) went seven.

• Meanwhile, we've already had more World Series sweeps (five) in 13 years of three-tiered Octobers than we had in 25 years of two-tiered Octobers (three).

• Maybe that's a coincidence. But we don't think so. In fact, we could make a case that it's a direct result of all the sitting around teams are forced to do in these elongated Octobers. Here's the evidence:

The long and short of it

DECADE WS SWEEPS 7-GAME SERIES
2000s 3 2
1990s 3 2
1980s 1 4
1970s 1 4
1960s 2 6
1950s 2 5
1940s 0 4
1930s 3 2
1920s 3* 4
1910s 1 2
1900s 1* 2
* -- includes ties
• In the 25 years of the two-round division-play era, there were only five World Series in which at least one team had five or more days off before the Series started -- and only two in which one team had four more days off than its opponent.

• But in the 14 postseasons since the expansion to three rounds, we've already had EIGHT years (including this one) in which at least one team had to wait around for at least five days for the World Series to begin.

• And now, for the first time ever, we've seen three straight years in which one of these World Series teams had a full week between games. The Phillies can only hope that's not as dangerous a development for them as it was for the 2006 Tigers and 2007 Rockies.

"When you go through the season and you're playing every single day, you can get two days off and, to me, it feels like a week," Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard said. "So now you get seven days off. That's like a month."

Well, in many ways, he's right. In an everyday sport, a week off may be refreshing -- but it's NOT in baseball. And it's not conducive to playing good baseball.

"There's a certain physical rhythm to the season," said Tigers coach Andy Van Slyke, who witnessed his team's 2006 Series meltdown firsthand. "And that's intensified in the postseason. And once you have that cut off, it's hard to get it back, physically and mentally. There's an extra adrenaline you get in the postseason that gives you such a high that, when you have those off days, you almost become too low."

[+] EnlargeKenny Rogers
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesKenny Rogers -- and his pine-tarred hand -- made sure the 2006 World Series wasn't a sweep. All the other Series since 2004 have been sweeps.
So what's responsible for all those off days? There are four big reasons:

One is, essentially, happenstance. When there's a short LCS in one league and a long LCS in the other, it's unavoidable for one team's break between rounds to be longer than the other. Not much anybody can do about that.

The second reason isn't solely the fault of the new postseason schedule. It actually goes back to 1985, when the LCS went from a best-of-five series to a best-of-seven. In the best-of-five era, from 1969 to 1984, no team ever had five days off between series. It wasn't until the format changed when teams that swept an LCS found themselves with all that time to kill.

The third reason is the introduction of that third round. In the wild-card era, it's amazing how little baseball a team can play if it makes quick work of its first two postseason victims. The 2007 Rockies, for instance, played only seven games in 22 days between their last game of the regular season and their first game in the World Series. The 2006 Tigers played just eight games in 20 days. The 2008 Phillies will have played only nine games in 23 days. That pace is about as un-baseball-like as it gets.

And the final reason is the most recent change in postseason scheduling, introduced last year. Fox wanted the World Series to start midweek, not on a weekend. So in order to, essentially, keep the producers of "Prison Break" happy, baseball added enough off days to stretch the postseason to 4½ weeks instead of the four it used to take. That means teams like the '07 Rockies, who swept the LCS, wound up with eight consecutive off days, instead of the former maximum of six days under the previous schedule.

So is there any doubt all this down time has taken its toll on the World Series? Not in our mind. But not surprisingly, the powers that be beg to differ. When we ran this data past Bud Selig himself last fall, let's just say the commissioner didn't sound particularly dazzled by our diligent research.

"You can't hit a baseball after you've been sitting for eight days without seeing 98 mph. … And no way should a pitcher have to be coming into Game 1 of a World Series just to get some work in. But that's what I did."

--Former closer Todd Jones on the long layoff leading up to the World Series

The commish said he saw "no inherent advantage" for either league built into the current system. And he said the players and ex-players he has asked about the time-off factor in the World Series "looked at me like I was crazy."

But if they're really giving him that look, maybe they had other reasons, because that definitely isn't the look we got from players we asked.

"Of course, it makes a difference," said Todd Jones, the closer for those 2006 Tigers. "You can't hit a baseball after you've been sitting for eight days without seeing 98 mph. … And no way should a pitcher have to be coming into Game 1 of a World Series just to get some work in. But that's what I did."

This stuff has happened just enough in recent years that we're hearing the players have expressed concern to the union that the October schedule has gotten too stretched out. And although the union already had agreed to this format for the 2007 and 2008 postseasons, Michael Weiner, general counsel for the Players Association, told us the union still "has to continue discussions for next season."

Weiner wouldn't comment on any specific concerns. But players we've spoken with don't seem to understand artificial off days, like the day off (with no travel) between Games 4 and 5 of each LCS.

Because of that off day, plus the new travel day introduced between Games 4 and 5 in the first round, no team ever has to play more than two days in a row at any point in the LDS and LCS. Which means one of the biggest factors in any team's success from April to September -- pitching depth -- becomes virtually a non-factor in October.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
AP Photo/Reed SaxonCommissioner Bud Selig doesn't seem all that concerned about the lack of competitiveness in recent World Series.
And while that may not contribute to all these noncompetitive World Series we've seen, it does seem to lessen the chance that the best teams will wind up getting to the World Series, let alone win it. So that's a topic almost certain to be explored.

But the fact is, even if MLB agrees, we're only talking about lopping off a day here and a day there. The good news is that at least guarantees the World Series will always end before Thanksgiving. But the bad news is there are no guarantees we'll ever see another stretch like the 12 Octobers from 1971 to 1982, when all but two World Series went at least six games, and six of 12 made it all the way to a Game 7.

"Do I worry about the competitive nature of the World Series? Of course I do," Selig said. "But I think there are a myriad of factors. And many of those factors we can't do anything about."

Yeah, there's not much chance of the commish taking a new look at that wild card he's so fond of and deciding, "Aw, never mind." So if we're looking for help from him to restore the luster of the World Series, we're looking in the wrong place.

Our only prayer, it appears, is the players themselves. And fortunately, history tells us there IS hope. Not surprisingly, you spell that hope: P-I-T-C-H-I-N-G.

Three years ago, the White Sox had five days off before the World Series -- and a great Game 1 pitching performance by Jose Contreras helped them forget about all of it. In 1995, the Braves had six days off before the World Series -- and a Greg Maddux two-hitter got them rolling toward their only title in the '90s.

So this October, it may well be up to the Phillies' Game 1 starter, burgeoning ace Cole Hamels. If he packed a can of Rust-Oleum for the trip to Tampa Bay this week, it may buy the Phillies enough time to blow off their cobwebs. And if that happens, it might actually be possible that a week from now, we won't have to ask the question anymore.

Whatever happened to the World Series?

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com