Can the MLB playoffs offer a respite from baseball’s uncertain future?

Image: courtesy of Thomson200 via Wikimedia Commons

Late on the evening of Oct. 27, 2020, Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Rob Manfred stepped forward at Globe Life Field to read prepared remarks and present the Los Angeles Dodgers with their first World Series trophy in 32 years. He tried to begin with some eloquent words about 2020—how it would be remembered as a year of tragedy and human perseverance—but the boos raining down drowned him out. From their living rooms, millions of fans across America joined the limited-capacity Arlington, Texas crowd in expressing their distaste (The Washington Post, 2021). Not for the baseball that had just transpired, however. Not for the mega-talented Dodgers, who finally seized their opportunity after years of falling short, nor the scrappy Tampa Bay Rays, the small-market success story that won the hearts of America and gave the mighty Dodgers all they could handle. No—instead the fans were booing Manfred, for in their eyes he represented everything wrong with their beautiful game.
A year later, much has changed. Thanks in large part to COVID-19 vaccines, fans are allowed back in the stands to show their passion in person. Ballparks are rocking with collective energy; harmonious recitations of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” abound. Yet, the ominous storm clouds hanging over the league have only gotten darker: the MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement—a massive document jointly crafted by the Players’ Union and representatives for the 30 teams—expires after this World Series. The Agreement spells out rules on everything from player salaries to free agency; from travel amenities to the “competitive balance tax,” which attempts to even the playing field among smaller- and larger-market teams (MLB Players Association, 2021). There are sure to be months of brutal negotiations between the two sides, with no guarantee that a new agreement will be reached before Spring Training in February 2022. The possibility of a players’ strike—and the cancellation of part or all of the 2022 season—looms over this offseason. Such an outcome would likely drive the same fans booing Manfred even further from the sport. The MLB players, whose minimum annual salary comes in at around $500,000 (Baseball Reference, 2021), are on one side while the billionaire team owners are on the other. Many fans see it as a battle between wealthy entities that deprives the everyday fan of the joy of watching the game they love.
Why were the fans booing Manfred in the first place? Baseball games today are marathon affairs. This year, an average game lasted a touch over three hours, up a full 40 minutes from the 1970s (Baseball Reference, 2021). Rosters are full of pitchers who throw hard and batters who can’t do much against them besides strike out, walk or hit home runs—not exactly the type of environment that is conducive to balls in play and thus action and excitement. Commissioner Manfred has implemented many initiatives during his tenure to try to combat the “pace of play” problem, with little success. These include limiting mound visits and imposing a three-batter minimum rule for pitchers, both intending to create offense and excitement. This may help to draw in younger fans, but might that alienate older fans fed up with the tinkering? Is a more drastic change to the rules needed to address both these issues? Would the Players’ Union even consider such a proposal? Will anything really be done unless the league’s bottom line is threatened?
While attempting to take our minds off of these questions and countless others, the 2021 pennant races have inadvertently underscored baseball’s fractured relationship with its fans. The Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays—both exciting, young teams looking to upend the establishment powerhouses in the American League—were shut out of the playoffs in favor of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. This is undoubtedly the scenario that baseball executives preferred, given the high-profile rivalry between the latter two teams. Neither of them is really an underdog given their free-spending ways, and the league has showcased and discussed their rivalry ad nauseam. Both of these teams have grown to be so universally despised outside of their locales that many Americans wanted the Canadian team to make it to the postseason instead. The Seattle Mariners, MLB’s afterthought hidden in the rainy Pacific Northwest, weren’t supposed to even make a run at the postseason, yet captivated America throughout September. Something wonderful and new and organic was starting to blossom, and it was cruelly discarded in favor of a rivalry gone bloated and stale.
No, I am not suggesting that the league intentionally gave the Yankees and Red Sox an easier ride to the playoffs. It’s important to remember, however, that the Blue Jays and Mariners missed the postseason with 91 and 90 wins, respectively, while in the National League the 88-win Atlanta Braves cruised to the playoffs with ease. The aforementioned Braves went straight to the Division Series because they finished first in the weak National League East. But the 106-win Dodgers didn’t! They had to play in a sudden-death Wild Card game because they finished second to San Francisco (107 wins) in the very strong National League West.
MLB’s playoff format gives fans every right to be exasperated, since it groups teams by their standing within their geographically-determined division. But this is the nature of the game: it is unfair. Little-known teams, underdogs, teams of destiny that capture America and the world sometimes get burned. But did it really have to happen this year? At the conclusion of an epic season in which fans returned to the stands, where the game helped countless millions of people heal from this past year and reconnect with others? With the sport’s irreparable fracture perhaps on the horizon? Here, in this moment, beautiful chaos bowed to predictability and routine.
Nevertheless, I am still enjoying the last breaths of this season, and you should too, if you can. While only two remain, here are the final four participants, and a brief retelling of their stories:
Despite general distaste for the Yankees, the Houston Astros are arguably the most notorious villain in Major League Baseball these days. They won their first-ever championship in 2017, and at the time were hailed as a model organization. They embraced new-age ways of using data to develop their players, and had a reputation of maximizing players’ skills in a way that no other team—besides perhaps Tampa Bay and the Dodgers—could. But in November 2019, the Astros were at the center of a major scandal in baseball in which they were found to have illegally decoded opponents’ signs and relayed them to their hitters. This allowed the Astros’ hitters to know what pitch was coming before the pitch was thrown. Although statistical analysis has cast doubt on the narrative that the Astros won their championship because of the scheme—they actually hit better that year on the road, and the camera setup was only installed in their home ballpark—many fans view the championship as tainted (The Toronto Star, 2020). One of Commissioner Manfred’s least popular actions was his handling of the Astros scandal—he granted the players on the 2017 team immunity from punishment if they cooperated with his investigation into the incident. Since then, the Astros have played extremely well even with no apparent cheating scheme in effect, earning the begrudging respect, if not the well-wishes, of some more-forgiving fans outside of Houston. Now they are back in the World Series, having stymied the White Sox and Red Sox with the chance to silence most of America.
The Atlanta Braves are one of the most exciting and popular teams in baseball, a sentence that pains me to write as a fan of their mediocre division rival, the Philadelphia Phillies. Despite losing superstar outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. to a torn ACL in July, the Braves made several savvy acquisitions to successfully fill the void. It culminated in an 88-win season—nothing special unless you’re missing your best player for a large chunk of the year. With the ineptitude of my Phillies and the New York Mets, this was enough to win the National League East. If you root for them, though, remember to tune out their Tomahawk Chop chant, which has garnered accusations of anti-indigenous racism.
The Boston Red Sox are far from their 2004 days, when they toppled 86 years of anguish to the ground. That year, the lovable, self-described “idiots” came back to beat their tormentors, the Yankees, in seven games on their way to their first championship since 1918. What has happened since then? Three more championships and nine postseason appearances in 17 seasons. They are, suffice it to say, no longer perennial underdogs. Their 2021 season was rather inconsistent, but they stabilized at the end of the season to secure a playoff berth. After beating the Yankees in the American League Wild Card game, they upset the heavily-favored Rays (and most of America) by beating them three games to one in the Division Series. Their run ended at the hands of the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series, four games to two. Their bats, red-hot in the first three games of the series, went quiet against the Astros’ injury-depleted pitching staff.
Finally, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the class of the National League, with a star-studded roster to match the glamorous city they call home. They won the 2020 World Series over the Tampa Bay Rays and are looking to become the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to repeat as champions. Los Angeles has recent history with the three other teams still standing. In 2017, they were the Astros’ World Series opponents when Houston won its controversial championship. The very next year, the Dodgers returned to the fall classic only to run into an absolute buzzsaw in the Red Sox. And in 2020, the Braves held a three-games-to-one lead in the National League Championship Series, but the Dodgers won the next three games to stun Atlanta. This year, though, no such miraculous comeback against the same foes was in the cards, as the Dodgers crumbled in six games.
What baseball fans need most at this juncture is something memorable, something to restore our joy and faith in the game and the people connected to it. We need the space between the white lines to be magical, or at least alluring enough to prevent our minds from wandering to the dark clouds outside of it. We need to be united by something other than a distaste for Manfred and the tarnished Astros: instead, something closer to a feeling of collective wonder. An epic finish to this postseason may not go very far in that mission, but it would be a start. Whether we get one remains to be seen.

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