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Why a baseball con game?

By Larry EldridgeSports editor of The Christian Science Monitor / October 9, 1981

We all laughed last spring when the Houston Rockets reached the NBA finals and made a serious bid to claim the title of "world champions" even thought they had lost more games than they won in the regular season.

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Things were equally silly in the NHL, where seven teams with losing records qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But these absurdities occured in pro basketball and hockey -- one a sport that has always had a "bush league" image and the other an overgrown, overexpanded, talent-diluted caricature of its former self.

Surely our tradition-steeped "national pastime" would never stoop so low just to con a few more fans into coming out to the ballpark. At least that's what we thought until this year.

Baseball's credibility, after all, was built on the premise that if offered a truly major league product. Unlike basketball and hockey, where hardly anyone cares until the playoffs, where hardly anyone cares until the playoffs, people followed baseball all summer because they knew regular-season games really meant something. A baseball team had to prove itself best over the long haul to be eligible for championship competition, with no inflated playoffs or other gimmicks designed to keep fan interest alive by giving undeserving clubs a chance for fluke titles.

As a matter of fact, if you go by the game's officials jargon, they didn't really have "play-off series" in baseball. The owners didn't like that word, so ever since the divisional setup began in 1969, the annual battles for the pennants have been known officially as the league championship series -- and you will never hear them referred to as anything else in official baseball circles.

But a couple of months ago the owners saw an opportunity to recoup some of their strike-induced losses, and we quickly learned just where fairness, credibility, and even their own PR image stand when they are stacked up against the old dollar sign. First they adopted the minor league tactic of dividing the season in two, then they devised a half-baked playoff system with potentially disastrous consequences. When this was pointed out to them, they simply switched to an equally ill-conceived alternative format.

And so it is that the Cincinnati Reds, who had the best record in baseball, failed to make the playoffs -- something that could not occur in any reasonable system. Also victimized were the St. Louis Cardinals, who had the best record in the NL East but still find themselves on the outside looking in while Philadelphia and Montreal play for the division title. And to a lesser extent there are Baltimore, Texas, and the Chicago White Sox, all of which finished with better records than one of the teams making the playoffs in their divisions.

The principal beneficiary has been Kansas City. The Royals were buried in the second division when the strike interrupted play, and although they improved in the second half, their overall record of 49-53 would put them fourt, 11 1/2 games behind the leader, in the American League West. Now if somebody doesn't apply the brakes, as the Boston Celtics finally did to the Rockets last spring, baseball could suffer the supreme indignity that basketball escaped and be forced to hail a losing team as its "world champion."

Oakland has the first shot, and fortunately for those who care about the credibility of the game, the A's appear on the verge of eliminating this potentially embarrassing situation after winning the first two games of their best-of-five series. But no matter what happens in this and the other division playoffs, it will be difficult to think of any eventual champion as truly legitimate in view of Cincinnati's absence. And a furiuos John McNamara, the Red's manager, was understandably anxious to make sure everyone recognized this fact.