The Tampa Bay Rays post-season came and went. If you blinked, you missed it.
For their efforts, a fairly successful regular season in which they went 86-76, the Rays earned a wild card berth, just not a prime-time game (small market teams don’t get those) nor a home game (in the new playoff format, they don’t get those either).
As someone who no longer watches baseball with the fervor they once did when the sport was still our national pastime, I recently learned that this year, Major League Baseball has revamped its playoffs yet again. In an era where every organized sport, from the NFL to the NBA to college football, is expanding its post-season in search of the perfect (i.e., most lucrative) format, Major League Baseball has joined the club. Welcome to the party, pal. Unfortunately, you’re a little late.
For those of you not paying attention, which is most of you according to the latest Nielsen ratings, twelve teams now make Major League Baseball’s post-season, six from the American League and six from the National, with the top two teams from each league receiving a bye. The opening round of the playoffs pits the top two wild cards against each other, along with a third wild card team that plays the division winner with the worst record. Those teams in the first round play a best two-out-of-three game series in which the lower-seeded, wild card team does not receive a single home game.
If you’re confused by all this, I promise you’re not alone. In what can only be an effort to attract more viewers, and more revenue, the sport we all grew up with has once again found a way to achieve imperfection. I may sound bitter because my hometown team failed to show up offensively, scoring only one run in 24 innings of baseball, their post-season over in less than 36 hours, yet I can’t help but feel they were punished for making the playoffs.
Hear me out.
The Tampa Bay Rays reached the post-season as this year’s third AL wild card. They finished ten games over .500, which was good for third in their division. For their efforts, they played the Cleveland Guardians, who were the American League division winner with the worst record. The division winners with the best records, New York and Houston, received first round byes. The other two wild card teams, Toronto and Seattle, played each other with the lower seed in that series also not receiving a home game.
Interestingly enough, the road team in that matchup advanced. The second-seeded Seattle Mariners (90-72) took two games in Toronto, suggesting for a moment that my argument might not hold water, but I beg to differ.
One can make a viable claim that home field advantage means little with regards to the outcome of a game, that the better team over time will win regardless of where they play. As usual, the Rays’ bats tightened, their offensively-feeble, October lineup managing only one run in two games. One of those games went fifteen innings, but this isn’t about them failing to show up yet again. This is more about injecting revenue into these communities and giving a team’s fan base the opportunity to cheer on their home team.
I understand that travel in a short series is problematic, that Major League Baseball wants to get to the meat of their playoffs as quickly as possible. But this format gives an unfair financial advantage to the teams that might have had a better record by only a single game. Not allowing for a home game in a playoff series when multiple games are played is absurd.
If you don’t like the 1 (home) – 2 (away) format, expand the series. If you don’t want your post-season running into November, shorten the regular season. Your record books are a sham anyway so what’s wrong with cutting the regular season back down to 154 games or less. Baseball owners’ eyes must have lit up when they saw other sports increase their earnings through post-season expansion but why not share that wealth amongst all playoffs teams by allowing their cities to thrive, even if only for a night.
The Rays’ struggling with attendance is nothing new. Tampa Bay’s turnstiles once again ranked 28th out of 30 teams, yet their playoff attendance is through the roof. This team has made the post-season consistently on a limited budget with young players who don’t yet realize they should be getting rewarded far more handsomely for their efforts. To not give them the opportunity to play a post-season game in front of their fans is as inequitable as the sport itself.
When discussing this new format, I can’t help but whether wonder anyone suggested excluding a home game for four of the teams in the post-season wasn’t ideal. Lower seeded NFL teams aren’t awarded home games but that’s a one and done sport. NBA play-in games are just that, single games. A playoff “series” implies multiple games and both teams should be awarded the opportunity to play at home, if for nothing else to allow the part-time beer vendors the opportunity for a paycheck and one last climb up the stadium stairs.
Giving the fans one last chance to cheer on the home team isn’t all that bad of an idea either.