Considering what most seemed to think going into this season, you could be forgiven if you thought the Guardians might dig deep enough into music history to declare their team song the Who’s rock and roll chestnut, “The Kids Are Alright.” They might also reach further for Nat King Cole crooning “They tried to tell us we’re too young . . . ”
They may keep trying to tell them, now that the young Guards are the American League Central champions. Maybe the division wasn’t exactly the strongest in the league. The Guards still had to prove that their actual foray into the past—going as old-school on the field and at the plate as they could get away with—would still work.
It may (underline that, ladies and gentlemen) be the only thing old school about the postseason to come.
Less than three decades ago baseball’s postseason was the nation’s most meaningful because it remained the most exclusive in professional team sports. Even with divisional play then, you finished your season with your cans parked in first place or you waited until next year. Well, let’s look at three decades ago precisely.
There were a mere four divisions. East and West, each league. Their champions were the Blue Jays, the Athletics, the Pirates, and the Braves. The Blue Jays and the Braves went to the World Series; the Braves, of course, got there on Sid Bream’s impossibly dead legged dash home. The Blue Jays won the Series in six; Pat Borders (1.250 OPS in all six games) was the Series MVP.
Come 1995, the World Series restored after its cancellation due to the owner-provoked players’ strike, baseball accepted three divisions and a wild card team in each league. This didn’t dilute the season’s competition so much as people feared, even if there was something disconcerting in watching a couple of teams fighting to the last breath to finish in second place.
That was also the year the classic Braves teams of 1991 through the mid-Aughts won their only World Series, against a club of the Guardians’ Indians ancestors. (Hall of Famer Tom Glavine through eight plus Mark Wohlers in the ninth shut the Indians out, 1-0.) Both the Braves and the Indians finished the season as division leaders. All remained reasonable.
Next month, baseball will see what the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL have known for a few decades—forty percent of its teams going to the postseason. This month, we’ve seen the result of the Manfred Administration’s propaganda that a more deeply expanded postseason entry field would surely guarantee more exciting pennant races.
It’s been exposed as a factual and shameless lie. A lie even more egregious than the lie that the pitch clock will shorten the times of games while the continuing proliferation of broadcast commercials between each half inning and during pitching changes actually does elongate them.
Deadspin‘s Sam Fels has observed just how much more “exciting” it’s been, if you define “exciting” as putting fannies in the seats. He couldn’t help noticing that, last week:
* The Phillies, hanging by a thread in the National League race, hosted the Jays, hanging in for a home-field wild card advantage. Citizens Bank Park holds 42,792 people. Both those Phillies-Jays games, postseason-critical games, barely drew half for each.
* The Milwaukee ballpark formerly known as Miller Field can hold 41,900, but held barely half when the wild card-contending Brewers hosted the National League East-leading Mets for three games. The Brewers drew slightly more than half the park’s capacity and still about a grand less than their 2022 average thus far.
“Those aren’t bad crowds,” Fels writes, “but at the end of September against a well-known and good team . . . wasn’t the point of all this that September attendances would be juiced?”
. . . That doesn’t mean there aren’t teams drawing well. They’re the names you’d expect–the Dodgers, Yankees, Padres, Braves, Cardinals, Astros. And the overall economy has many factors that don’t Uleave a whole throng of people with the disposable income to attend a ton of games. Except, again, we were told that more teams vying for more playoff spots were supposed to punch through these kinds of factors. It’s what they’ve been telling us for nearly 30 years.
It may just be that fans actually recognize when the regular season is devalued, and the dangling carrot of just two or three wildcard games doesn’t really get the loins tingling. Or that teams that have playoff spots locked up for months can’t really generate excitement until those playoffs actually arrive, unless you’re the Dodgers. Playoff expansion was supposed to bring anticipation and excitement to places it doesn’t normally live. Look at the numbers and tell us.
I looked at the same numbers as Fels. Then I caught hold of the Mets hosting the Marlins in Citi Field Tuesday night, a game that’ll be remembered if at all for a) the Mets losing 6-4, to fall into a tie with the Braves atop the NL East; but, b) Marlins pitcher Richard Bleier becoming the first pitcher since the birth of the American League to balk three times against . . . the same batter, enabling the Mets’ Jeff McNeil to score without stealing a base or a ball in play after he reached himself on an infield hit.
Citi Field can hold 41,922 in the seats. Tuesday’s game drew 69 percent of that. The game was meaningless (other than the spoiler role) to the eliminated Marlins but critical to the Mets, especially since the NL East is the only remaining division race yet to be resolved, and the formidable, defending World Series champion Braves refuse to go gently into that not-so-good gray night. (Hurricane Ian may have more than a little something to say about the two combatants’ coming weekend set in Atlanta.)
All of that tells us playoff expansion does no favours to the game or its fans, but it does plenty of favours for that which is nearest and dearest to Commissioner Nero’s and his employers’ hearts. Well. They may remain the gang that believes the common good of the game equals making money for it, but they can’t (or won’t) answer what good 40-60 percent full houses do for those cherished coffers.
The expanded pelf for the playoffs goes to all teams regardless of whether they become postseason teams. “This only softens that lack of additional fans attending games that they’ve come to realize doesn’t really mean anything,” Fels writes. “MLB can shrug off the lack of heightened ratings or attendance with the bigger checks from TBS, FOX, and ESPN.”
Almost the only things left for which to root are Yankee outfielder Aaron Judge, Angels outfielder Mike Trout, and Angels unicorn (pitcher/designated hitter) Shohei Ohtani. Hall of Famer-in-waiting Albert Pujols reached his lifetime 700 home run milestone in his homecoming finale with the NL Central-champion Cardinals, but Judge, Trout, and Ohtani still have long distance achievements to achieve.
The Yankees are the official AL East champions, and on Wednesday Judge met Roger Maris at last as the AL’s single-season home run champion. Pressing perhaps understandably since he matched Babe Ruth’s 1927 output, Judge has eight games left to pass Maris. Few are willing to bet against him still.
The Angels go nowhere (again) through no fault of Trout’s or Ohtani’s own. But with eight games left to play on the season future Hall of Famer Trout still has a shot at a 40th home run or more despite missing 31 percent of the season on the injured list. (He had 37 after Tuesday.) It’s to wonder what he might have hit if he hadn’t missed that time. Would 60+ have been out of the question? We’ll never know now.
Ohtani has a shot at a 40th home run, too. (He has 34 at this writing.) He can also become the only man in Show history to have a 40 home run season at the plate and finish on the mound with an ERA and a fielding-independent pitching rate below 3.00. At this writing, Ohtani sits with 34 home runs, a 2.47 ERA, and a 2.52 FIP. Not to mention 203 pitching strikeouts and counting. Say good night, Babe.
But how long can Commissioner Nero and company shrug off the further dilution of real pennant race competition? The kind that would compel owners in all baseball cities and not just the big boys to make substantial investments in their teams, from the ground up, year in and year out? Whoops. Better not go there. We may be striking toward 21st century schizoid heresy.