It's Time to Cut Weakest Playoff

Before the TV game show "The Weakest Link" came along, the City Section already had its version.

It's called the City Invitational baseball tournament.

That's where 16 teams, most of them mediocre at best, are given a chance to play for a diluted championship at Dodger Stadium.

They are granted, despite their shortcomings during the regular season, the chance to reap the same ultimate reward as the 16 teams in the Championship bracket.

Perhaps a better name for it would be City Travesty playoffs.

"I don't particularly care for the way the system is now," said Coach Gary Donatella of Sylmar.

For those unfamiliar with the process, here's how it works:

Every year, after the nine leagues finish play, a committee comprised of the coach from each league champion and two Interscholastic Athletic Committee representatives convenes to seed teams for the playoffs. Each committee member can vote or abstain.

Eight league champions earn spots in the Championship division and the second-place teams in those leagues automatically qualify for the playoffs, although they can be exiled to the Invitational. Only the Magnet League is not guaranteed a berth.

The first key issue at the meeting is determining, by vote, the strength of the leagues. This year the order was, from strongest to weakest: West Valley, Valley Mission, Marine, Eastern, Sunset Six, Western, Northern and Coliseum.

This vote is taken into account later to settle disputes on whether the third-place team from League A is stronger than the second-place team from League B, and so on.

Then the real madness begins, with teams nominated for seedings. This year, Chatsworth, which went on to win the title, was seeded No. 1 in the Championship bracket for the fourth consecutive time. The rest of the slots are filled according to nominations and votes.

Once the 16 teams are selected for the Championship tournament, the committee picks 16 teams for the Invitational. And the charade is in full swing.

With the exception of Cleveland, which won the Invitational title for the second time in three years, no team in that tournament this year deserved to be placed in the Championship bracket.

Cleveland was 19-11 entering the playoffs, but finished tied with El Camino Real for fourth place in the West Valley League, each at 6-9. El Camino Real was the No. 4 team from the league for seeding purposes because it defeated the Cavaliers twice in three meetings.

So El Camino Real, with a 13-13 record, was seeded No. 1 in the Invitational and Cleveland was seeded No. 4. Cleveland was 13-2 in nonleague games, including a victory over Southern Section Division III runner-up Westlake, and El Camino Real was 7-4. Cleveland lost two games to Chatsworth by 3-2 scores.

This year, there was a serious lack of common sense shown during the seeding meeting.

Consider, for instance, how a team the caliber of Roosevelt was seeded No. 15 in the Championship bracket after being considered for the No. 8 seeding earlier in the process. The Roughriders battled their way to the final, losing to Chatsworth, 2-1.

"The way they do things now is ridiculous," said Roosevelt Coach Scott Pearson. "The coaches are voting according to their own interests."

Although no format will ever please everyone, many coaches agree the current setup needs revamping. Some want to see the three-year-old Invitational tournament disappear, but section administrators say it is up to the coaches to change the process.

Here's hoping they do.

One possible alternative would be a 24-team tournament, with the top eight seeded teams receiving first-round byes. The No. 1-seeded team then would host the lowest-seeded team remaining after the first round, and so on. Semifinal winners would play for the title at Dodger Stadium, preceded by a game for third place between the semifinal losers.

Another format, favored by Donatella, would be to have a 32-team bracket. Pearson would like teams placed in 4-A and 3-A divisions before the season starts. Some prefer a more draconian approach, such as an eight-team, double-elimination tournament.

Any alternative would be a vast improvement over the current system. There should be one true City champion, crowned from among the strongest teams, and the Invitational tournament should disappear forever.

This is not intended to diminish Cleveland's accomplishment. The Cavaliers played by the rules, but Coach Joe Cascione made it clear he would have preferred to play in the Championship division, where his team belonged.

It's time Cascione and his fellow coaches mimicked game show host Anne Robinson and told the Invitational tournament: "You are the weakest link. Goodbye."

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