Imagine that you are a Cleveland Indian fan living in southern
Ohio and have waited your whole life to see your team make the
playoffs. Finally, the Indians get there with the best record in
baseball. You assume that their reward is what sports announcers
call "the all-important home field advantage throughout the
playoffs," or at least some easy first-round calisthenics
against the wild-card team. You look forward to watching every
pitch on television.
Instead you get this: the Indians playing the team with the
next-best record in the league, in a short best-of-five series
with the home field advantage going to their opponents. And the
games are not televised where you live.
Congratulations. This is how the people who run baseball reward
the game's best teams and fans: with a flawed playoff system and
even more illogical television coverage. Baseball owners thought
they were being hip last year when they realigned the divisions
and juiced up the playoffs from four to eight teams. What the
owners have done is give us the New Coke of playoffs.
The format is harder to understand than the essay question on a
Russian literature final exam. The American League's official
media guide, the Red Book, even got it wrong. When an Indian
official telephoned both the American and National League
offices to find out which league champion has home field
advantage in the World Series, he received two different
answers. (The National League winner has the advantage.)
What exactly is going on with the repackaging of baseball? These
are the facts:
Being the best team in baseball means nothing. That's because
the playoff format and home field advantage are predetermined.
This year Cleveland--which was 59-26 at week's end and might be
the first team since the 1954 Indians to play .700
baseball--could face a tougher first-round opponent than does the
wild-card team that staggers in around .500 because teams from
the same division cannot meet in the first round. If either the
Texas Rangers or Kansas City Royals gain the wild-card bid,
Cleveland would play the California Angels (54-33), while Texas
(44-43) or Kansas City (41-42) would play the Boston Red Sox
(48-38). Forbidding intradivisional matchups in the first round
is ridiculous in light of the balanced regular-season schedule.
Home field advantage, which should also be determined by record,
goes to the East and West winners in the AL and East and Central
winners in the NL this year. So why are the first-round sites
preordained? Logistical problems, say the league suits, who
worry about stadium conflicts with football--even though 17 of
the 28 baseball clubs don't share their stadiums--and about
last-minute hotel accommodations.
An NFL exhibition game between the Carolina Panthers and
Jacksonville Jaguars gets national television coverage;
baseball's divisional and league championship series do not. The
American League and National League first-round and LCS games
are scheduled to take place simultaneously and to be broadcast
regionally. That means if you are a Cleveland fan living in the
Cincinnati TV market, you will get the Reds' games, not the
The Baseball Network--the mutation created by baseball owners,
ABC and NBC that will be Kevorkianized after this year--plans to
cut away from one game to another for updates. A baseball game,
especially a championship game, is a beautifully crafted novel
full of plot and character development. Don't insult us with
TBN, which completely ignores the first half of the year, also
makes a mockery of regular-season telecasts. On July 24, for
instance, TBN dumped a dreadful Cub-Met matchup on the New York
and Chicago markets rather than an Atlanta Brave game with Greg
Maddux pitching or first-place Cleveland playing at first-place
No one knows who will telecast Game 7 of the World Series. ABC
and NBC, who are splitting postseason coverage, are fussing over
who gets the last cookie.
Changes are coming. At least the owners have admitted some
mistakes. Starting next year they want a national television
game of the week all season; national broadcasts of staggered
postseason games; and some earlier World Series starting times.
The playoff format could be revised again, too, though not soon
enough. It may not happen until 1998, when the Arizona
Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays begin to play. One
idea being floated is to put one team in each league, create six
five-team divisions, begin limited interleague play and
eliminate the wild card (the team with the best record in each
league would have a first-round bye in the playoffs). The
downside is that this would render the two best teams idle for
about a week when they need to be at their sharpest.
Still, that's an improvement over the current system because it
rewards teams for excellence. The Indians, not to mention their
fans left in the dark, deserve better than what they're getting.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of man attacking TV set]