John Smallwood: Playoff expansion spells nothing but excitement

Playoff expansion made possible the Phillies' NLCS win over the Houston Astros in 1980.
Playoff expansion made possible the Phillies' NLCS win over the Houston Astros in 1980. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: March 02, 2012

I'M THE first to acknowledge that I am not a baseball purist, so I find it a bit comical when people argue against the latest proposal for expansion of the Major League Baseball playoffs on the basis that it somehow taints the sanctity of the game.

It looks as if MLB will soon expand its playoffs from eight to 10 teams - possibly as early as this season.

The new format would add one more wild card to the mix in each league.

Those teams that don't win a division would be the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds and meet in a playoff while the three division winners would be awarded a first-round bye.

All indications are that the wild-card round would be only one game for the right to advance to a five-game series against a division winner.

I'm all for it.

I don't see how adding another wild card for a one-game playoff diminishes the 162-game regular season any more than having playoffs already has.

If you want to protect the sanctity of the regular season, then go back to the way it was before the first playoff expansion in 1969.

Have a regular-season winner in the National and American leagues and let them go directly to the World Series.

But we love our playoffs, and as much as people like to complain about an expansion, I can't think of one instance when the excitement would not be enhanced with the changes.

It's hard to argue that each past playoff expansion has not been good for the game and good for more fans.

Critics always point out how certain memorable regular-season finishes would not have mattered if a new playoff system had been in place.

The hot example against this expansion is to say that last season's final-day collapse of the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves, coupled with the comebacks of the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays, would not have mattered because those teams would have just moved to the new wild-card game.

That can't be denied.

But something not pointed out: We don't know what kind of end-of-season magic might happen in the race for the final spots of the new format.

History shows that after each of the previous two expansions, the overall excitement surrounding the game - particularly down the stretch - has increased.

Think back to all the complaints when MLB split the leagues into three divisions and added a wild-card team to the playoffs in 1995.

The arguments against were basically the same as now.

None of them rang true.

The end of the regular season only got better as more teams stayed in the hunt for that additional playoff spot.

The very argument being used concerning the last day of the 2011 regular season would not have played out had there been no previous expansion.

The fact is that for every great moment in baseball that someone says would not have happened because of playoff expansion, I can find a moment that happened precisely because of that expansion.

The Phillies' epic 1980 NLCS against the Houston Astros, when the final four games were decided in extra innings, never happens if baseball did not have its first playoff expansion.

The Phillies would have actually missed the playoffs in 1980 under the previous rules.

The classic 2004 American League Championship Series when the Boston Red Sox rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat the New York Yankees would not have happened had Boston not made the playoffs as a wild card.

We don't yet know what kind of memories will spring from a new playoff format placing increased importance on winning a division.

Imagine the increased pressure and intensity that will be created if two division rivals go into the last series of the season knowing that each game could mean the difference between getting a bye as the division winner or having to play a one-game crap-shoot as a wild card.

Some argue that a one-game playoff would not be fair because a wild card with a considerably worse record could advance because of one good day.

I respond, so what?

A wild card is intended only to be a second life. That in itself is reward enough for not getting the job done during the regular season and winning a division.

Wild-card teams should not be rewarded the same way as division winners to start the playoffs.

It's really not fair to compare adding two more teams and two more games to the MLB playoffs to the watered-down playoffs of the NBA and NHL.

More teams (16) make the playoffs than miss (14) in both of those leagues. So, yes, you will get teams with losing records that make the playoffs.

In baseball, we're talking 10 out of 30 teams, with two ultimately being around for only one more game.

It will be virtually impossible to have a .500 team make the playoffs.

You also don't have to worry about further expansion of the MLB playoffs because the calendar simply does not allow for it, unless you are going to shorten the 162-game schedule, which no owner will agree to because of financial concerns.


Contact John Smallwood at

smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

www.philly.com/Smallwood.

 

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