Playoff plan throws curve at best teams

September 27, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

Life isn't fair. Really, that's the only way to look at it. A season can turn on an injury, a mistake, even a bad call. A season can also turn on an unfair playoff format in which the team with the best record goes unrewarded.

It happened to the Cleveland Indians last year when they opened the Division Series in Baltimore. And it could happen to the Orioles this year when they open the Division Series in Seattle.

Major League Baseball seems to hold exclusive rights on such stupidity, but it wasn't always that way. Twenty-five years ago, the only perfect team in NFL history had to play the AFC Championship Game on the road.

The team was the Miami Dolphins.

The date was Dec. 31, 1972.

The place was Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.

That's right, the NFL determined its postseason sites in advance back then, employing the same type of rotation that baseball has used for the Division Series since expanding its playoffs in 1995.

Like the Orioles, the Dolphins had plenty of notice. And like manager Davey Johnson, coach Don Shula refused to make the unfortunate circumstances an issue in his preparation.

"My attitude on scheduling was and always has been, whatever the schedule says, just get ready to play," Shula said this week. "I'm sure I didn't say to the team, 'We've got to go to Pittsburgh, we've got to try that much harder.'

"We were still happy about being a playoff team. We realized if we didn't win, our season was over. Those were the things I talked about, rather than feeling sorry for ourselves. When you start talking like that, you start talking like a loser."

And in 1972, the Dolphins didn't lose.

They caught a break with the Pittsburgh weather -- the temperature that day was an unusually warm 63 degrees -- and they rallied to beat the Steelers, 21-17.

Punter Larry Seiple ran 37 yards to set up a touchdown. Bob Griese replaced Earl Morrall and led the second-half comeback after missing 11 weeks with a broken leg and dislocated ankle.

"Great memories," Shula said.

The Dolphins completed their 17-0 season by defeating the Redskins in the Super Bowl. It took the NFL another three years before it started awarding home-field advantage to the teams with superior regular-season records.

The Orioles' situation isn't exactly analogous, but after finishing with the best record in the American League, the only way they'll obtain home-field advantage in the Division Series is if it goes to a full five games.

This wouldn't be an issue if the first round was best-of-seven -- baseball alternates sites in the World Series, and no one ever complains. But in a best-of-five, a team has less time to recover if it falls into an early hole.

Thus, opening at home can make a huge difference, as the Orioles discovered last season. But when you consider their draw this time -- Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., the Kingdome -- their fans have ample reason to be upset.

The second-place Yankees not only have an easier opponent, but they've also got an easier schedule. They open at home Tuesday, one day before the Orioles. But with two off-days, their pitchers can work on normal rest.

The Orioles, on the other hand, will use Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson on three days' rest in Games 4 and 5, if necessary. They've also got a cross-country flight in the middle of the series. The Yankees fly only to Cleveland.

The owners keep promoting realignment as their latest panacea, but why should anyone trust them? They've made September less competitive and October more of a crapshoot, and they've only just begun.

A Wild-Card World Series would be a fitting punishment for these blockheads, and it's certainly not out of the realm this season -- the Yankees and Florida Marlins have the third- and fourth-best records in baseball.

Still, the Orioles are left with only one choice, and that's to go out and play. If they're truly the best team in the league, they'll find a way to overcome Seattle.

"They've had a great year," Shula said. "Now this is the next step. Whatever it takes. If Seattle was coming to Baltimore, it wouldn't be automatic wins. They've won on the road. They know this is part of it."

In fact, the Orioles are 4-1 in Seattle this season, and their 50-28 road record is the best in the AL. Of course, all that could mean little in the playoffs, when the packed domed stadiums provide even more of an edge.

Seattle and Minnesota -- the only AL teams that play under non-retractable roofs -- are a combined 15-2 in the postseason inside their domes.

The Mariners rallied at home from a 2-0 deficit against the Yankees in the '95 Division Series. The Twins won the 1987 and '91 World Series without winning on the road.

The more you look at it, the more the Orioles appear at a disadvantage -- an unfair disadvantage, considering all they've accomplished in the regular season.

Still, they're in no position to complain, not after benefiting from the system a year ago. Championship teams need to overcome every opponent, every obstacle.

Life isn't fair. Play ball.

Pub Date: 9/27/97

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