Baseball's best-of-seven playoffs will be fairer championship test

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Baseball's switch to a best-of-seven playoff format this year has produced quite a bit of negative reaction. One national columnist called it ``a $9 million sellout to television,'' and others have voiced similar objections. But I, for one, think it's a good move that will determine the World Series teams much more logically than before. I'm not naive enough to believe that this is the main reason for the switch, of course. Anyone who has been around baseball owners very long knows the reason for almost any move they make is the old dollar sign -- and ditto for the players. But regardless of motives, the result will still be a better and more meaningful competition.

Surely it has been obvious that best-of-five playoffs were not long enough to produce true champions. Teams played 162 games to win their division titles -- 162 games that tested each club's skill and balance in hitting, fielding, pitching, bench strength, etc. Then in three quick decisions a team with a couple of ace pitchers that had finished first in a weak division could turn the lights out on a much stronger club against which it would have no chance over an extended period of time.

Even a best-of-seven series doesn't eliminate this problem, of course. Pitching strength, rather than depth, is still magnified compared to regular-season play. But the extra games do give a balanced team a better shot while reducing the chance that a relatively weak team with a couple of big pitchers (remember the 1973 New York Mets?) can sneak into the World Series.

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So even if it does stretch the season a bit and risk potential weather problems, the pros of a best-of-seven format still outweigh the cons by quite a bit in my book.

The playoffs were inaugurated with the realignment of the two leagues into divisions in 1969, and have existed for 16 years in their original format. The idea of switching to a best-of-seven system has been around for a while, and it almost occurred in 1983 until the Players' Association rejected the proposal in a dispute over how the additional TV revenue would be divided. That issue still hasn't been resolved, but this year both sides decided to take the $9 million pie now and worry about how to slice it up later.

The playoffs will begin Oct. 8 -- just as they would have anyway -- but the possibility of more games pushes back the start of the World Series to Oct. 19. This means that even with no rainouts, it could run to Oct. 27 -- which is getting uncomfortably close to the inevitable day when the World Series becomes the ``November Classic.''

Just to put things in perspective, Oct. 27 is so late in the fall that some college football teams will have played eight games by then; it's the midpoint of the NFL season; and even the pro hockey and basketball campaigns will be underway.

This problem of late-October and possible November games, with its increased likelihood of wintry conditions in northern cities, is certainly a real one. In the best of all possible worlds, baseball would solve it simply by shortening the regular season, which is too long anyway. But that isn't going to happen, of course, since we are talking about money.

Another possibility down the road would be to hold the World Series in a neutral, warm-weather site, a la the Super Bowl. Baseball has long resisted such a move, fearing that it would ``take the World Series away from the fans.'' But no less solid a baseball man than St. Louis Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog told me in Florida this spring that he thought it was time to seriously consider the idea.

For now, though, they'll risk it and hope for the best -- and personally I think it is worth the risk.

In addition to the danger of a weather disaster, the objection most frequently raised to making the playoff format the same as that of the World Series is that it would diminish the latter event and make it less special. I don't think that's really very likely to happen, though.

To the public, the World Series will always be the magic moment -- calling up all that lore of the past about Babe Ruth's ``called shot,'' Grover Cleveland Alexander striking out Tony Lazzeri, those catches by Al Gionfrido, Sandy Amoros, and Willie Mays, Don Larsen's perfect game, Mickey Owen's dropped third strike, Enos Slaughter's mad dash home, Bill Mazeroski's homer, Carlton Fisk's homer, etc. This isn't going to change.

As for players, managers, and serious fans, the playoffs had already replaced the World Series as the most exciting set of games anyway. The World Series is the icing on the cake, but a pennant is the culmination of an entire season. Even before the advent of playoffs, winning a league championship was every team's goal -- and a tight pennant race like those of 1950, 1951, or 1967 created far more pressure and excitement than the World Series that followed. And ditto in the modern era for a tense, tightly-played, pressure-packed league championship series like that in 1980 betweeen Philadelphia and Houston. But that's just for the aficionados. Casual fans still don't get excited -- no matter how good the games are -- until the World Series itself.

Obviously it is the event -- not the number of games -- that determines public interest. Baseball, in fact, has been the only major sport in which the final championship test had a different format from those immediately preceding it. So now, just like the Super Bowl, the NBA finals, the Stanley Cup finals, Wimbledon, etc., the World Series will still be the ultimate showcase for its sport even though earlier competitions leading to it will be just as long -- and sometimes more exciting.

If anyone gets really worried, though, that the number of games is a factor, they could solve that problem too just by increasing the World Series to a best-of-nine format. Don't laugh. If we're talking $9 million for a couple of extra playoff games per league, imagine the price tag for an extra pair of World Series games -- which are the ones that really pull the ratings.

There's precedent, too. Many fans may not realize it, but the very first World Series in 1903 was played under that format. It was switched to best-of-seven for a while after that, but went back to best-of-nine for three years (1919-20-21) before changing back once more.

So someday in the not too distant future, if the money is right, it is not really very difficult to imagine baseball's owners saying it's time to take the game back to its roots and play the old ``traditional'' best-of-nine World Series their grandfathers used to tell them about!

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