Pastime Now a Bad Comedy

There used to be a beautiful symmetry to baseball, a sense of order, continuity.

There were eight teams in each league and they played each other exactly 22 times a season, 11 on the road and 11 at home. Each team had exactly the same challenge, no variables. You had a true champion. The World Series pitted the best against the best. Thus, it was often in New York.

Into this Eden of sport crept the serpent--television. Television was not a fan, it was a participant. And it couldn't stand still for, say, a September game between two teams, one or both of which would be hopelessly out of it.

The game had to change. Expansion diluted it. TV perverted it. Other sports plundered it.

They carved the game into divisions, multiplying the end-of-season contenders. Even this was not enough. Television's idea of Nirvana is to have everybody still in the hunt at season's end.

Why not? Other sports do it. Hockey and basketball play whole seasons simply to run a couple of ribbon clerks out.

In 1981, an instructive thing happened to the grand old game: A strike truncated the season. So the sages of baseball--with a little input from those in TV--put together a package in which they split the season in two. The winners of the first half played the winners of the second half in each division. The survivors met in the finals and the survivors of that got in the World Series.

That noble experiment resulted in the Dodgers winning the Series. They won the National League West title in the first half with a 36-21 record. But they finished fourth in the second half with a 27-26 record.

Overall, they finished second to Cincinnati, which had a record of 66-42 for the whole season, vs. the Dodgers' 63-47.

For the first time in baseball history, a non-winner had played in--and won--a World Series.

The Dodgers played the Yankees, whose record was even sorrier. The Yankees won the first half of their American League division with a 34-22 record. But they finished next-to-last in the second half with a 25-26 posting. And they qualified for the World Series with the fourth- best record in the league for the season overall.

When they got away with that, when the skies didn't open or the oceans dry up, and the media didn't grumble mildly, the custodians of the grand old game took note.

There was nothing sacred about baseball. Show business is business, after all.

That baseball had broken faith with the game's longtime devotees, who had been snookered into thinking it had been handed down on Mt. Sinai, bothered the lords of the realm and their TV ventriloquists not at all. When the game finally expanded to 28 teams, they knew they could take any liberties with it they wanted.

So, they not only cut the baby in half, these Solomons cut it in three. They split the leagues into three divisions, with the champions in each plus one "wild card" team, i.e. the team with the best second-place record, eligible for the playoffs.

Baseball had now reduced the playing field to a crapshoot. Gone was precocity. In came mediocrity.

And then, their worst nightmare appeared to be taking shape. In each league, the West Division came into focus as a study in ineptitude. In the American League, a team with an 12-15 record, Texas, is leading the division. Oakland, a team with a 9-21, .300 percentage, was only 4 1/2 games out. In the National League, the Giants are a little better--.500 at 15-15.

The possibility of a team getting into the World Series with a losing season record looms large.

And, the playing field is no longer level. As in pro football, one team can chance upon a far easier schedule than its competition. In pro football, it's deliberate. They penalize the stronger teams and come to the aid of teams with inferior records by giving them inferior competition. It's called rewarding failure, something new in the American experience. There are other considerations: To win the West Division title of either league, you have only to beat three other (weak) teams. To win in other divisions, you have to beat four other (strong) teams. A palpably unfair balance of power.

The charm of baseball has always been its continuity, its linkage with the past. You are looking at the same game your great-grandfather looked at. It is an heirloom sport. There is an inheritance at work. Prowess is measurable from one era to another.

Sports Illustrated recently pointed out that in the wild, wild West of the American League, the Seattle pitching staff gave up 10 runs on one hit in three innings the other day and that the Yankees, playing against West teams, received (count 'em!) 33 walks in four games--eight of them with the bases loaded!

This is not a division, it's a sitcom.

And what will it do to the record-setting process? Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and Willie Mays and Henry Aaron set their marks batting against the same quality opposition in the same orderly fashion each year. The mild, mild West teams play only 39 games against each other and the other 123 against the real world. The Humane Society or those who throw eggs at fur coats should picket those games.

Should the fattened averages count? In a recent game against the Yankees, with two out, Seattle pitchers walked seven in a row and hit an eighth.

Imagine if Connie Mack or John McGraw came to life and gazed upon this shambles. As Casey Stengel once asked plaintively, "Can't anybody here play this game? "

It's not the national pastime anymore. It's the national follies. These guys should come out in noses that light up and pants that keep falling down. Were the Marx Brothers ever any funnier? They better hope Letterman never gets a look at their act.

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