Postseason expansion: Strike this mother-of-bad-ideas out

Atlanta Braves

Freddie Freeman, Series MVP Jorge Soler, and William Contreras in the celebration crowd after the Braves downed the Astros last October.

You can point to any number of issues animating the current lockout that portend calamity, of course. But you can count on half your hand how many would bypass calamity into downright disaster. Expanding the postseason even further than it has been already is the big one.

As Deadspin analyst Sam Fels knows only too well, the fourteen-team postseason proposal is bad enough in and of itself, with the players “very hesitant, but mostly because they know it’s the biggest matzo ball they have to lob to the owners in order to get what they want in another area.”

That plus suggestions of tying the overdue and very needed universal designated hitter to other things either side wants are the skunks awaiting their invitation into the room. The universal DH should be made so with no strings attached. The further-expanded postseason should be rejected likewise.

“The players know that the more playoff teams there are, the more teams will be aiming for the middle and the bottom seeds rather than going all out to win divisions and top seeds which deflates salaries,” Fels writes. “But the players might want whatever they can get in return for expanded playoffs.”

Players, don’t do it. You’ll live to regret it. You’re under no obligation to validate the owners’ tunnel vision. You’re under every obligation to take up your share in reminding one and all that the common good of baseball isn’t the same thing as making money for it, or trying to inflate the profits that the owners will likely do all in their power to keep you from enjoying your reasonable share of it.

The incumbent postseason structure has already diluted both the meaning of the regular season and the depth of a real championship. Someone, anyone, needs to remind his fellow players, competitors that they are, that there’s no genuine competition or metaphysical engagement in playing or watching the battle and the chills, spills, and thrills of fighting to the final breaths to finish . . . in second place, or even further back.

Baseball’s three-division leagues need to go. Proposals that should be heard include making each league a four-team, four-division, two-conference league, which would require expansion of one new team in each league to even things out. While we’re at it, let’s do away with regular-season interleague play once and for all except the two occasions on which it’s supposed to mean anything substantial: the All-Star Game, and the World Series.

And I’m prepared to get even more outlandish, if that’s the way you think of that basic idea. But hear me out. In two-conference leagues, assuming interleague play goes the way of the Louisville Grays*, the regular season scheduling should be strictly intra-conference.

You still want a none-too-short postseason, then? There’s a right way to do it, and that’s the sort of thing that will facilitate it, without further fostering the oversaturation that’s been the real killer of postseason interest.

That, and eliminating the wild cards entirely. There should be no postseason reward for finishing in second place or further back. (You say you want to put the brakes on tanking teams? There you have it. They shouldn’t be that willing to tank if they know it’s either finish in first place or wait till next year. ) Everybody with me? Good. Now here ’tis.

The two division winners in each league’s conferences can play a best-of-five division series. That’s eight teams, ladies and gentlemen, with a maximum possible ten games. Then, the two conference winners in each league can play a best-of-five League Championship Series. Five more games maximum. (Which is the way the LCS was played from its 1969 birth through 1985.) Then, your league champions would still meet in a still best-of-seven World Series.

That’s 22 games maximum possible as opposed to today’s maximum possible 43 postseason games. With such prospectively reduced postseason saturation, think of the broadcast dollars baseball and the broadcasters can still mulct from advertisers. They’d still be glandular enough. And championship legitimacy would be restored at long enough last.

A splendid time should be had by one and all watching the regular season mean something once again, the broadcast ratings return, the interest never flagging, and the bank accounts still swelling. (Not to mention reminding one and all, the owners especially, that fans don’t buy tickets, or tune in, because they want to watch the owners.) It would be depth triumphant over mere width.

Would that help begin settling such issues as service time manipulation or owners’ continuing bids to suppress player earnings? Would it help get out of Commissioner Nero’s head such nebulous things as three-batter minimums for relief pitchers and into his head that umpires require true accountability at long enough last?

Would it help awaken both the commissioner and his paymasters that the real cause of game delaying is the two minutes or more of broadcast commercials not just between innings but with every pitching change?

Would it help get into the thick skulls of today’s organisations that if they’re that dismayed with one-dimensional offenses they ought to seek the next prospective Henry Aarons and bypass the next prospective Adam Dunns? That they ought to demand a universal, no monkeying around baseball that gives the pitchers and the hitters at least the appearance of an even battle? (Remember: Good pitching is still going to beat good hitting—and vice versa.)

Those are questions for which the answers now remain undetermined. But that realignment toward the greater and more meaningful postseason might be a start. Take me out to the real World Series again.

What should be the proverbial absolute no-brainer is the universal DH. The evidence is established long enough. Pitchers as a class can’t hit and never could. It’s not worth the periodic thrills from the outliers among them to continue perpetuating the farce (not to mention the dangers) of pitchers at the plate.

It’s not. worth. it. to continue seeing rallies ending when pitchers on the mound pitch around their ways out of jams (thank you again, Mr. Boswell) by handing the batters ahead of them passes so they can rid themselves cheaply of that pitcher coming up to the plate swinging a Ronzoni Slugger.

And it shouldn’t be tied to any other issue. Especially not to the postseason that requires rethinking back to the point where a championship means something genuinely substantial.

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* The Louisville Grays were charter members of the National League in 1876. They lived long enough to be undone by major league baseball’s first known gambling scandal in 1877.

Pitcher Jim Devlin, left fielder George Hall, and utilityman Al Nichols were caught throwing games for payoffs and banned from baseball for life. Shortstop Bill Craver was banned for life for refusing to cooperate with the investigation that unearthed the scandal.

L’affaire Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal (right), shown interviewing Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts for Fox Sports at All-Star festivities. MLB Network decided Rosenthal’s comparatively mild critiques of Commissioner Nero Goldberg were still a little too harsh for the bosses’ comfort–even if they were published elsewhere.

A very long time ago, the bellettrist Albert Jay Nock counseled a protege named Frank Chodorov about writing: “Frank, don’t pick your reader up by the back of his neck and throw him downstairs. Lead him gently.” Whether Ken Rosenthal is aware of either of those two quiet giants of libertarian thought, he has been that kind of baseball writer, observer, and commentator.

Though he’s not given to rapid and bundled shafts of mirth, Rosenthal rarely fails to inform, instruct, and delight. He was required reading for a very long time on the Fox Sports website; he has been required reading at The Athletic since just about the day that journal was born. His additional presence at the MLB Network simply meant that the network benefitted from a well-seasoned reporter going deep as a finely-composed sauce.

Until it didn’t, as of Monday. If you thought the government government can be petty with in-house critics, for once it looks downright sanguine about them compared to baseball’s government.

The owners of the MLB Network decided that they just can’t have a known non-rabble rousing reporter criticising baseball commissar Rob Manfred on their (read: his) dollar. Never mind that Rosenthal’s apparent thought crimes occurred in June 2020 and weren’t even committed aboard MLB Network.

Permit me to take you back to baseball in suspended animation during the early months of the pan-damn-ic. Manfred and the owners attempted to renege on a deal to pay players full pro-rated salaries for 2020 whenever it might begin, even as they still pondered whether there would be even an abbreviated season. From his roost at The Athletic, Rosenthal (with Evan Drellich, the reporter with whom Rosenthal blew Astrogate wide open upon Mike Fiers’s whistleblowing) was having none of that:

What he wants now, according to sources, is to stop bickering with the union, start negotiating and reach an agreement that will bring the sport at least temporary order.

Yet for a guy who suddenly is looking for peace, Manfred sure has a funny way of showing it.

He and the owners, supposed stewards of the game, are turning the national pastime into a national punch line, effectively threatening to take their ball and go home while the country struggles with medical, economic and societal concerns . . .

The best commissioners offer statesmanlike presence and superior vision. Few ascribe those qualities to Manfred, and few would argue baseball is in a better place since he took over for Selig on Aug. 14, 2014. Rather than simply enjoy the fruits of the 2016 CBA, a lopsided victory for the owners, the clubs have gorged on them, alienating the players. And once again, they are valuing their own short-term interests over the long-term interests of the sport.

As critiques of baseball’s government go, Rosenthal (and Drellich) were mild sauce compared to numerous lights of varying statures. God and His servant Henry Aaron only know that when I want to compliment Manfred I’ve called him Commissioner Nero, fiddling while baseball burns. Or, Commissioner Goldberg, citing Manfred as a man giving an excellent if troublesome impression of how Rube Goldberg’s evil twin might have been, if Goldberg had had one.

Mild, schmild, MLB Network says. It iced Rosenthal for close to three months, while still paying his agreed-upon compensation, until the 2020 trade deadline at August’s end. When Rosenthal’s MLB Network contract expired at the end of 2021, the network decided not to renew him. Just why it merely iced him almost three months, then waited until his deal with them expired to let him go, is for mere speculation for now.

Under normal if no less tasteful circumstances, dumping actual or perceived in-house critics doesn’t require eighteen months to execute. The truly cynical might suggest MLB Network wanted to sustain a pretense of objectivity, even if it meant keeping Rosenthal on hand rather than dump him at once while honouring his contract otherwise. The less cynical might agree that dumping Rosenthal at once would have left MLB Network with a far worse look than it has now.

“The timing of this news could not be worse for MLB,” writes Sports Illustrated‘s Dan Gartland of Rosenthal’s purge. “The league’s status as a villain and a bully has been cemented during the ongoing lockout, and so even if Rosenthal’s departure was due to, as an MLB spokesperson told the [New York] Post, ‘natural turnover in our talent roster that takes place each year’ and not his 18-month-old criticism of Manfred, just the perception that the league has punished a well-liked and well-respected reporter for a fair critique of a widely despised authority figure is damaging to the network’s credibility.”

As the Boston Globe‘s Chad Finn notes, purging Rosenthal inflicted an unwarranted stain on the numerous reporters working there who lack Rosenthal’s profile:

[T]he decision to dump Rosenthal did their reputations no favors. Major League Baseball executives, particularly original network president and CEO Tony Pettiti, have insisted since the beginning that they want MLB Network to be editorially credible and they would not interfere with the journalistic duties of the correspondents.

Then, because the commissioner cannot accept that criticism comes with his job, the network goes and dumps the popular and respected Rosenthal for what were accurate rebukes? The perception is not fair, but Manfred’s actions implicitly suggest that the reporters who remain are in lockstep with how the commissioner’s office wants the league covered. At the very least, they now know what the consequences are for being critical of the boss.

Or, the bosses, if you remind yourself that Manfred serves at the owners’ pleasure and can be dumped by the owners any old time they choose it—provided, of course, that they pay the rest of his contracted-for salary. You know, just as the Yankees paid off in full all those decades ago, whenever George Steinbrenner decided to throw out the first manager of a season.

Since the lockout began, MLB Network has limited its live programming. MLB.com notoriously purged players’ faces from their stat pages. The site also published an FAQ on the collective bargaining agreement negotiations on day one of the lockout . . . entirely through the eyes of Manfred and his bosses, the owners.

Thus the most significant issue with professional sports leagues establishing their own media networks. They can be valuable resources for fans during off-seasons. But they can also become a league’s version of Izvestia. “No one is expecting Rosenthal to be allowed to bash Manfred on MLB Network,” writes Gartland, perhaps forgetting for the moment that Rosenthal’s bash wasn’t aboard the network, “but it’s refreshing when league-owned media outlets publish less-than-flattering stories.”

Weep not for Rosenthal, whose roosts at The Athletic (as a writer) and Fox Sports (as an on-air reporter/commentator) are at least as secure as a bank vault. Weep instead for the thinking person’s sport that’s been used, misused, and abused by a commissioner and his paymasters for whom genuine thinking proves beyond their pay grades.