Dial 2-3-2 … Sorry, Wrong Number

Why did baseball go to so much trouble to award the team with the better record the home-field advantage in the World Series, only to largely dissipate that advantage by observing a 2-3-2 distribution of home games for the two teams, when both the NBA and NHL rewards the higher-finishing team more appropriately with their 2-2-1-1-1 format?

And just because "it has always been done that way" is no excuse. In its "Original Six" era and for four years thereafter, the NHL had the first-place team from the regular season (in each division starting in 1967-68) play the third-place team and the second-place team play the fourth-place team. It was not until the 1971-72 season that they went to first vs. fourth and second vs. third, a far more logical and a much fairer arrangement. The NBA did the first vs. third and second vs. fourth thing too until realigning into four divisions beginning with the 1970-71 season.

On Tuesday, for the second time in baseball history, the team with the better record, the 108-54 Boston Red Sox, will host the 92-71 Los Angeles Dodgers, for four of the seven games of the 2018 World Series should it go the full seven games. But if the Dodgers can "steal" one of the first two games in Boston and then come home and win three straight, they would win the Series after having played three of the resulting five games at home.

That is hardly fair.

And it is not as if baseball hasn't corrected errors of this sort before. When the League Championship Series were best-of-five, from 1969 through 1984, one team hosted the first two games, then the other team hosted the last three games, if necessary — but regular-season records did not determine which team got the first two or the last three at home. That was determined on a rotating basis: in odd-numbered years, the NL East and AL West champions got the three home games, while in even-numbered years the NL West and AL East teams did (the idea being to prevent having two West Coast teams host games at the same time).

With the first-ever Division Series in 1995 (it would have been 1994 if not for a strike), its format was the same, the team having the home-field advantage getting Games 3, 4 and 5 at home, allowing the team with the "disadvantage" to sweep a series in three straight after having played two of the three games at home.

But after three years of endless complaints from everyone from the media to the players' union (not only about this, but also about the provision that barred one division champion from home-field advantage in the Division Series each year even if they finished with the best record in the league, again in an effort to prevent West Coast teams from playing at home at the same time — and twice out of a potential six times this forced the two division winners with the best records in a league to play each other in the first round), the home-and-away format for the Division Series was changed to 2-2-1, which is what it remains today.

As for the claim that going to a 2-2-1-1-1 format for both the League Championship Series and the World Series would needlessly "push back" the end of the postseason, that is every bit as spurious as "it has always been done that way" as a justification to use an unfair format. Exactly how many days would the postseason be "pushed back"? The answer is four — two during the LCS and two during the World Series.

And if the Lords of Baseball are so concerned about the World Series ending too late in the year, then why not go back to the traditional 154-game regular season? Think of all the totally awesome arguments this would stimulate — the number-one such argument being that Babe Ruth should be re-crowned as baseball's true home run king, on the grounds that Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa all should have "asterisks" attached to their home run totals — Maris because of the longer schedule, McGwire and Sosa because of both the longer schedule and alleged steroid use.

The Fall Classic would be more "classic" if its drama lasted a day or two longer, and if that drama was scripted more fairly. The 2-2-1-1-1 format would accomplish both.

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Comments and Conversation

October 21, 2018

Jeff Kallman:

Exactly how is it fair to the game to have a pair of coast-to-coast World Series competitors have to fly cross country for three potential games? And, incidentally, returning baseball to a 154-game season wouldn’t re-crown Babe Ruth as the “legitimate” home run champion. Baseball actually played shorter schedules for a few seasons before Ruth’s career began, and nobody thought of re-shortening them during the peak of his long-ball mayhem to make someone else the “legitimate” single season home run king all over again.

Personally, I’d be in favour of returning to the former practise of the World Series starting in alternate league champion’s parks—-the National League champion’s one year, the American League’s the next. But then I’m also the one who’d prefer, also in the interest of shortening up time as well as fattening up real championship, to:

* Eliminate the wild cards entirely. You didn’t finish the season with your butts parked in first place, you don’t even think of playing for a championship; let’s be done with all these thrills and chills to determine who finishes … in second place.

* Give the division winner with the best season record a round-one bye and let the other two division winners play a best-of-three division series.

* Have the winner of that series meet the bye team in a best-of-five (like it originally was) League Championship Series.

* Restore the primacy of the best-of-seven World Series.

But nobody listens to me.

October 22, 2018

Anthony Brancato:

Taking your issues one at a time:

First, why should a team that finished 16 1/2 games ahead of the other, as was the case this year, not get the home field advantage just because it was the other league’s “turn” to have the home field? (And with interleague play, a pair of teams not in the same league whose divisions did not play each other play approximately one-third of their schedules against common opponents). Second, why should a team that finished nine games ahead of another (the Yankees vs. Cleveland this year) - miss the playoffs and the team they finished nine games ahead of make it? (I will, however, concede that both wild cards in the same league shouldn’t come from the same division. Second-place teams in the playoffs is one thing - but a third-place team getting in is a bridge too far, especially with the schedule so heavily skewed toward same-division games; in addition, I do believe that in no case should a wild card get home field over a division winner in the World Series, even if the wild card finished with a better record, unless both of the teams reaching the Series were wild cards, in which case the one with the better record gets it). And going back to a best-of-five LCS will make upsets more frequent, which defeats the whole purpose of awarding the home-field advantage to the team with the better record.

Thank you for your comments. I hope to hear more from you to future columns.

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