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The regular baseball season ended this year on Sunday the fourth of October. That was as late as it gets, a silly situation necessitated by the so-called “World Baseball Classic” which is yet another dumb idea conjured and fostered by the highly original Bud Selig regime.
On the other hand, the World Series of 1954 -- more than a half century ago to be sure, but hardly in ancient times -- ended on the second of October. That was the one matching the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants and featuring that wonderful catch by Willie Mays piercing the impenetrable depths of centerfield at the cavernous Polo Grounds that you’ve seen 10,000 times on grainy old black and white film.
There was nothing unusual about such an early ending to the Series and the season. The 1932 classic in which the mighty Babe allegedly called his shot also ended on the 2nd. The 1955 Series pitting the Yankees against the Dodgers for seven epic games ended on the 4th; while the ’53 series, between those same two hearty perennials of those times and lasting six games, ended on the 5th.
In the ’40s and ’50s the season’s average end date with nothing left but the echoes was the 9th of October. There were years when it stretched longer up to around Columbus Day but more often it came earlier rather than later. Expansion in the early sixties extended the regular season by eight games, more than a week, without changing the traditional schedule. In ’63 the Dodgers primed by Sandy Koufax swept the Yankees of Mantle and Maris and it was all over by October 6th.
With but stray exceptions the goal of finishing up by or around Columbus Day was the iron-fisted rule of order for more than six decades. But the last time it happened was in the ’67 season of sainted memory. The “Impossible Dream” was officially laid to rest on the 12th. The next year, divisional playoffs were introduced. Subsequently, a third tier was added to the post-season and there are those who are now demanding a fourth. It’s a notion -- however spurious -- that whets the enthusiasm of baseball owners for there’s money in them thar hills, you know.
Obviously expansion which begat the lengthened playoffs and is now sustained by such odious concepts as ‘‘the wildcard’’ is the main reason that we have the summer game extending into November, which is patently ludicrous. But it’s not the only reason. Network television, the many tentacled octopus that controls so much of the subject nowadays, deserves just as much credit.
It is because of television that the Yankees and Angels had to bide their time four beautiful days in the middle of October twiddling their thumbs while waiting for the privilege of starting their showdown just as the weather was turning foul. TV calls the shots, sets the schedule, and spins everything around ratings considerations while of course also paying dearly for the privilege.
Still, no teams should be obliged to wilt on the vine wasting perfect weather this quirky time of year. Both semi-final rounds should have begun no later than Wednesday after the preliminary rounds had ended with the vanquishing of the Red Sox, Twins, Cards and Rockies. They might even have begun on Tuesday. One day should be enough for rest and travel too.
Consider that in the aforementioned ’54 Series they knocked off the four games in four days starting two days after the regular season ended. No day of travel to go from New York to Cleveland by train. You ride the rails by night and be ready to play the middle of the next day. No big deal. In that ’63 Series -- the first true transcontinental epic -- they did the four games in five days. Was travel easier and quicker back then? Hardly! Amazingly, travel days are scheduled for this year’s Series even if it’s still lingering into November with the finals being held in New York and Philadelphia, a two hour drive by limo, or Anaheim and LA, only some 40 miles apart. It’s preposterous. But TV must have a schedule set well in advance and adjusted to the needs of its format. The networks are inflexible beasts.
Another playoff round is coming. It’s almost certain although it may be restricted to one game. Knocking the concept of the wildcard is unpopular in Boston. Without it there would have been no magic in ’04 and few postseason appearances in the last decade. But concern about the fairness of the thing has grown. It’s at last being conceded that the team that makes the playoffs through the back door has it too soft and should not be on an even footing with the teams that win their divisions.
Some would reform the process by having the wildcard team get only one home game. Others want there to be two wildcard teams and require them to play a one-game playoff the day after the regular season ends with the first full round beginning the very next day. It would be a “play-in” and it would be mighty tricky putting a substantial strain on the wildcard winner’s resources, especially its pitching.
But it’s hardly unreasonable. The integrity of the regular season needs to be protected with the value of finishing first affirmed. Wildcard teams too often coast once their passport to the post season seems assured. The Red Sox did that this year, not that it did them any good in the end.
Czar Selig will protest. The “wildcard” is his baby and he loves it dearly. So will teams like the Red Sox, for obvious reasons. Dissenters will want a two out of three play-in, arguing that a one game winner-take-all is just too hairy. Others are pushing for the first round to be expanded to a best four out of seven series. All of which might add another week. Are you ready for baseball on Thanksgiving? But the process will be reformed. It is inevitable.
In the meantime we endure the spectacle of game’s played in punishing conditions. Aggravating the problem is the fact that there are no more day games. Keep in mind that until the seventies most postseason games were afternoon tilts and autumn afternoons in the Northeast and Midwest can be almost infinitely more pleasant than autumn evenings. Late starts -- again mandated by the network octopussies -- deepen the problem.
The result being such absurd situations as this year’s division series game in Colorado played in temperatures plunging into the low twenties while a blizzard was building in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains only 30-40 miles away. At the end, approaching 2 a.m. in the east, the Phils and the Rockies, shivering in their ski caps and mittens, looked like zombies while the folks in the seats were giving new meaning to the curious business of suffering for one’s team.
It’s all very heroic. But is it baseball? You do wonder even when all the hardship and the surreal circumstances result in magnificent effort as was surely the case in game two of the Yankees-Angels classic played in outrageous conditions until 1:10 in the morning.
Baseball needs to rethink its post season format. No one expects them to cut back on the games. The show is too good as are the profits. But how the games are presented can and should be improved. Selig, the Lord High Mikado, needs to give this serious thought and make tough choices. He can begin by regaining some control of his agenda from those rapacious TV networks. It’s tough duty. But that’s why Bud gets the big bucks; some 16 million of them every year, at last count.