Disregard divisions in playoff revisions

KEN ROSENTHAL

June 20, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

For sheer chaos, which would you rather attend, a White House staff meeting or a major-league owners' meeting?

The White House rated the edge, until the owners rolled out their new expanded playoff format, then retreated faster than you can say, "gays in the military."

Maybe you missed Plan A, a typical owners' creation, which is to say, a total disaster.

For one ridiculous day, it appeared the first-place team in each division would play the second-place team in a best-of-five series starting in 1994.

"There's a slight preference that you should maintain the identity and autonomy of the division," said the Boston Red Sox's John Harrington, chairman of the schedule format committee.

The autonomy of the division?

Did we miss something, or has the AL East declared home rule?

If baseball is so concerned about the identity of its divisions, the American League should abandon its balanced schedule, in which teams play more games against the rival division than their own.

But back to the plan.

To grasp its brilliance, consider the impact it would have had on the 1989 pennant race between the Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays.

The Blue Jays' reward for outlasting the Orioles the final 'N weekend would have been a plane ride to Baltimore for the first two playoff games. Under the plan, the division winner was to play the final three games at home.

What if the Orioles had won two of three the final weekend to force a tie for the regular-season title?

The teams would have played a tiebreaker in Baltimore -- the Orioles won the coin flip -- and then started the actual playoffs.

What drama.

Well, apparently someone figured out that the idea of whittling down a 162-game season to five might not be -- dare we say this without a commissioner? -- in the best interests of the game.

So now, the owners are back to Square One.

It comes as a great shock to learn that they're divided over who will participate in the expanded playoffs, which teams will play which teams or how many games will be played at each park.

As usual, the only thing unifying them is their desire to bust the players' union, which renders the debate over the 1994 playoff format moot. A work stoppage is a mortal lock for '94, and three-division realignment is likely for '95.

Know what's amazing? However greedy the owners' motives, the idea of expanding the playoffs to eight teams isn't unreasonable -- the major leagues now consist of 28 teams, and the percentage of clubs reaching the postseason still will be far lower than any professional sport.

Yet, fans everywhere are outraged.

They know the owners will screw this up.

Really, the solution is very simple. We'll go slowly, so Marge Schott understands.

For '94, reward the division winners, plus the two teams with the next-best records -- not simply the top two teams in each division. That would eliminate the threat of a second-place club with a sub-.500 record winning the World Series.

There have been three second-place teams with losing records since '69 -- the '83 Kansas City Royals (79-83) and the '84 Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros (80-82). No doubt, that Braves-Astros tiebreaker would have riveted the entire nation.

The autonomy of the division, you ask?

Forget it, the concept is absurd.

Three times, five AL East teams have finished with a better record than the second-place AL West club. The most extreme case was '83, when the five teams each won 87 or more games, and the Royals finished 20 games behind Chicago.

Anyway, with all that settled, the rest is easy: Seed the top four teams according to their records, with No. 1 facing No. 4 and No. 2 meeting No. 3. The top seed gets four home games, the second seed three.

Thus, the 162-game season would still carry meaning, and a dominant team would receive every advantage. The Orioles averaged 106 victories in 1969, '70 and '71, and won the AL East by an average of 15 games. It would be a farce if such a powerhouse was knocked out early.

The format can remain the same once the three-division plan is adopted -- just include a wild card, and let the fun begin. Fans would stop complaining about the expanded playoffs immediately. The races would be too exciting.

There, the owners are straightened out.

The president, he's on his own.

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