The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 22, 2012

Thoma column: Money is the object in baseball postseason

By Edward Thoma
Free Press Staff Writer

— We don’t know who will win the World Series this year, but we do know the winner won’t have a legitimate claim to being the best team.

The Detroit Tigers will represent the American League; their 88-74 record was only the seventh best mark in a 14-team league.

In the National League, there’s still a chance — actually now a pretty good one — that the third-best record (San Francisco Giants at 94-68) will advance. Otherwise it will be the St. Louis Cardinals, the No. 5 record, whose 88-74 mark matches that of the Tigers.

This might be the best way to identify a “purist”: If it bothers you that an 88-win team can win the World Series while a 98-win team (the Washington Nationals) is out hunting, you’re a purist.

I’m a purist. An honest one, if I may say so; as delighted as the Twins made me in 1987, I can never shake the knowledge that they had just the fifth best record in the American League that season (85-77).

The 1987 Twins won the World Series. That doesn’t make them the best team that year.

Professional baseball, by definition, is more about the money than the competition. Bud Selig and his co-conspirators with the players union and the television networks want to maximize the dollars, not reward quality.

That’s why we have an expanded playoff system that inevitably degrades the value of the regular season and creates the illusion of pennant races when, by traditional standards, there are none.

And it explains regular season schedules in which division rivals play markedly different opponents.

The new format this year, with two wild-card teams per league in a one-game play-in, had the merit of enhancing the value of a division title. It did nothing to make it more difficult for a weaker team to emerge as the champion.

It is true that a smaller percentage of teams in baseball make the postseason than in the other three major North American team sports. It is also true that the margin of difference between good teams and lesser teams is smaller in baseball than in the others, making it more plausible that the seventh-best record can take out the best record in a short series.

That heightens the uncertainty, and uncertainty is good at the box office and in the ratings.

It doesn’t do much for the quality of October play.

A-Rod made simple

The New York Yankees took a giant pratfall against the Tigers last week, and Alex Rodriguez barely played in the process.

Now pretty much everybody with an Internet connection and an interest in baseball is speculating about how quickly he’ll be out of the Bronx.

My view: He ain’t a-going nowhere.

Rodriguez still has $114 million guaranteed over the next four seasons, and that excludes up to $30 million in bonuses as he starts reaching certain home run milestones — and he’s only 13 dingers away from the first of those thresholds.

The Steinbrenner brothers are known to be eager to get the payroll under the new punitive luxury tax threshold, but they’ll have to eat too much of their fading star’s contract to get any real benefit out of trading him.

He’s staying for at least another two years.

 

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.