Word leaked last week that Major League Baseball is considering a radical change to the playoff structure, which would include expanding to four wild card teams in each league and allowing certain teams to choose their opponent on a live TV broadcast.
The reaction I have seen has been overwhelmingly negative, and I share strong concerns about adding playoff teams and further diluting the importance of a 162-game regular season. But contrary to what seems to be the prevailing sentiment: I think choosing your opponent on live TV is fun as hell, and it’s not even unprecedented in MLB history.
The early years of the World Series were quite erratic, with both best-of-seven and best-of-nine series, games ending in ties, and changing structures in terms of the home/away sequence. By 1924, it settled into the seven-game, two-three-two home/away structure, although even that was occasionally modified such as during World War II.
But in 1946, the National League encountered its first ever tie for the pennant, between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals. By rule, the teams would play a 3-game series to settle the tie. And here’s where things got interesting, and some gamesmanship came into play.
A coin-flip would determine home field advantage, but in fact, the winner of the coin-flip could choose whether they wanted to play Game One at home, or Game Two and (if necessary) Game Three at home.
The Dodgers won the coin-toss and elected to host games Two and Three in Brooklyn. That presumably gave them the “home field advantage,” but it also meant that the day after the season ended, the Dodgers had to travel by train to St. Louis while the Cardinals simply rested.
Whether or not the extra travel was a factor, on October 1 the Cardinals won Game One 4-2. The next day, both teams travelled by train to New York, and on October 3, the Cardinals won Game Two 8-4, securing the pennant.
The newspapers were filled with criticism for Leo Durocher and the Dodgers organization for letting St. Louis host the first game of the series. Just five years later, the Dodgers would again tie for the pennant and again win the coin-toss. This time, they elected to host Game 1 and play the following two on the road. (Though with their opponent being the New York Giants, travel was not an issue.)
In that 1951 tie-breaker series, the Dodgers would lose Game One at home, win Game Two at the Polo Grounds, then lose Game Three in the 9th inning on Bobby Thompson’s walk-off “shot heard round the world.” (In another echo of today’s game, Thompson and the Giants were stealing signs via a telescope in center field.)
The Dodgers would tie for the pennant twice more, in 1959 and 1962, and win the coin tosses each time. In both instances, the Dodgers elected to host the final two games. They won one series and lost the other.
With the advent of divisional play in 1969, the National League eliminated the 3-game series in favor of the one-game tiebreaker still in place today. Home field advantage in those series is first determined by head-to-head record, then a series of other criteria if necessary. But in the event of a 3-way tie, teams still choose their position. Team A plays Team B at home, then the loser plays Team C on the road. So while Team A is clearly the strongest position, there’s some gamesmanship in the question of playing up to two games on the road vs. one game at home.
While there has never been a 3-way tie, it has been close enough that the teams have chosen their positions should it come down to it.
So this is a long way of saying that the idea of choosing your opponent, or at least choosing the home/away structure of a postseason series, has quite a bit of historical precedent.
Some seem turned off by the idea that the choice would be made on a televised special. Me? I say Major League Baseball is in the entertainment business, and a televised selection special is just another way to engage with fans.
The NCAA Tournament selection special has aired nationally for as long as I can remember, and while you could certainly argue that there’s nothing entertaining about a list of teams being unveiled, plenty of people watch that every year.
And of course this MLB selection show would have the added edge that the teams themselves are making these choices. Imagine the “bulletin board material” generated by a team choosing an opponent with a better record? I say let’s push the envelope and record full-on wrestling-style promos, with the best teams in the league boasting of their prowess and challenging the lesser teams to face them at Summer Slam / the Wild Card round.
I’m exaggerating what this would likely look like, but even so, I don’t see how folks can bemoan how baseball has fallen in prominence and then oppose something like this that would absolutely capture the national spotlight.
I imagine there’s a long ways to go before this proposed playoff structure is finalized. My hope is they avoid further diluting the number of teams who make the playoffs, but if they want to spice things up by choosing opponents, I say it’s all in good fun.