It's only realignment, not a new ballgame

KEN ROSENTHAL

September 18, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Here come the purists, laying it on thick. Time magazine quotes Yeats in its discourse on "Baseball's Wacky Wild-Card Gimmick." Something about "man is in love and loves what vanishes." As if the old playoff format was Julia Roberts.

The downfall of the sport. The decline of civilization. The end of the world as we know it. To hear some people tell it, the new plan is all of these things. But to the Orioles, realignment means never having to say you're sorry . . . for losing another pennant race to Toronto.

Let's wipe away the tears of nostalgia and look at this pragmatically, OK? Right now, the Orioles' top starting pitcher and top reliever are ailing. In theory, both might be healthy by playoff time. But under the current setup, it might be too late.

Hello, wild card! If this were 1994, the Orioles wouldn't have to overtake the Blue Jays, they'd just have to outlast the New York Yankees. It still would be a pennant race. And, with Mike Mussina and Gregg Olson returning, the Orioles would have the pitching to get hot in October.

The new system isn't perfect -- far from it. Indeed, we'll probably never see another do-or-die stretch duel between powerhouses like Atlanta and San Francisco. The only potential for a head-to-head race would be in a division with two mediocre contenders, neither of which could earn a wild card.

Still, that won't mean the season will be without drama. Under the new format, the current AL East race would be just as tense -- the Blue Jays still could finish third. Yes, Chicago would have a comfortable lead over Kansas City in the Central. But Texas would be trying to hold off Seattle in the West.

In other words, you'd have the same number of races (two), with an extra team in the mix (Seattle). The playoffs would match four fairly equal teams -- Toronto and Texas, Chicago and the wild card. That's a lot more interesting than Toronto-Chicago, one team without pitching, the other without personality.

The NL, you ask? Not as good, but not horrible, either. Atlanta would be pulling away from wild-card Philadelphia (and Montreal) in the East. San Francisco would be romping in the West, and St. Louis would be battling Houston in the Central, the weakest division of the six.

See, it can be an advantage to win a close race -- the wild-card team and top division team can't play each other in the first round. Atlanta would benefit from Philadelphia playing the division winner with the second-best record. Even in a short series, St. Louis or Houston would be no match for the Braves.

Let the purists turn to the poets; the fans will turn to the box scores. The four-division setup met similar resistance in 1969, and somehow the game survived. Septembers will be different now, but no less meaningful. Besides, it's pointless to complain.

As we all know, the owners' greed is the driving force behind all this, but eight playoff teams out of 28 isn't unreasonable. Neither is eight out of 30 -- the logical next step, so that all six divisions would consist of five teams.

First expansion, then inter-league play -- Mets vs. Yankees, Cubs vs. White Sox, Roger Clemens vs. Barry Bonds. Can the unbalanced schedule be far behind? It would further enhance geographic rivalries, and make division play more compelling.

Yes, baseball is defined by the long march of the 162-game season, by the ebb and flow of the pennant race, by champions who earn their glory. But in the current economic climate -- higher salaries, lower TV revenues, booming attendance, bumbling owners -- expanded playoffs probably were inevitable.

Of course, the purists don't want to hear it. They keep racing to the Baseball Encyclopedia, searching for sub-.500 clubs that would have been playoff teams under the new plan. Look at the '83 Rangers, they cry, a mere 77-85! OK, these things might happen. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The '73 Mets won the NL East with an 82-79 record, and everyone called them Cinderellas.

The idea is to hold fan interest, and it just might work. No longer must teams be mired in 10-year holes. No longer will going worst-to-first be such a distant dream. Dramatic turnarounds will be more common. All things will be possible.

You might not get that September showdown between hot contenders . . . but you'll get the best-of-five opening round as a nail-biting replacement. You might not see the best clubs survive all the way to the World Series . . . but you'll see just rewards for upstart teams like the '89 Orioles.

Oh, it's the apocalypse all right.

Where's my Yeats?

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