The Magazine

If Darwin Ran Baseball

A modest proposal for ensuring that the best teams play in the World Series.

Oct 12, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 04 • By WILLY STERN
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Do away with the divisions. Send the four best teams in each league to the playoffs. Don't fret, Red Sox and Yankee fans: To satisfy regional rivalries, Major League Baseball's schedulers can still arrange more games against traditional rivals.

Give the better team a leg up. In the first round of the playoffs, the team with the best record in each league would square off versus the club with the fourth-best record, while the second and third seeds would pair off. In each round, the winner is the first team to attain four victories. But here's the kicker: In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the team with the better record is automatically awarded a victory before the games start. The better team over a 162-game season must, then, win just three of six, whilst the lesser team must prevail in four out of six. This new format could further favor the better regular-season squad by giving that side a decided home field advantage. Of the potential six games played in each series, the first two could be at the better team's home park, followed by two away, then two back home.

The World Series would remain a four-of-seven affair. I don't much like the midsummer All-Star game's determining home-field advantage for the series. Whichever team has the better record during the regular season should have that plum for the World Series. (The All-Star game outcome would only matter in the unlikely event that both leagues sent teams to the World Series with identical regular-season records.)

I'll save the bean-counters the trouble of doing the math on possible lost TV revenues: There aren't any. In fact, there's a potential for two additional playoff games--if every series were to go the distance. And many more regular-season games would suddenly matter. Maybe even matter a lot. No more could a well-heeled team get away with clinching its division with three weeks to go and trotting out Triple-A players while resting its regulars down the homestretch. Who'd want to risk forgoing an automatic playoff victory or two? And think of the fan interest, both in terms of gate receipts and television viewers, as the 162-game marathon wound to a tense close.

And speaking of that 162-game season, I'd also like to advocate for chopping the schedule back to the old 154 games. Sure, a shorter season would be a tricky sell with players and owners alike. But playing a warm-weather sport with ski gloves in 37-degree temps makes a mockery of the World Series.

Voilà. Regular season performance would once again seriously matter. The best club would have a better chance of being crowned World Series champs. Survival of the fittest? Not exactly. But this format would at least aid in the ultimate survival of the team with the superior pitching, hitting, and fielding. Charles Darwin would approve. So would Casey Stengel. How 'bout it, Bud?

Willy Stern taught a short course on "Baseball, Ethics, and American Society" at Carleton College last year.