Recently, Jeff Passan reported that the MLB and MLBPA have discussed the possibility of major rule changes. These include a universal DH, a three-batter minimum for pitchers, and many more possibilities that would greatly alter how the game is played. While none of those rule changes are likely to be implemented within the near future, that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate on some other possible changes the MLB could (and, potentially, should) make to improve the product on the field, and generate increased fan interest. This is Part 2 of my “Modest Proposal” series, where I will examine several unorthodox ideas that might add a spicy new layer to Major League Baseball. Check out [link Part 1] and [link Part 3] here.
Perhaps it’s just because the Red Sox have never been subjected to this unique form of baseball torture, but I can comfortably look anyone in the eye (except maybe Max Scherzer, because the mismatch color thing creeps me out) and declare in a fake southern accent: “I love the MLB Wild Card Game, I do declare!”
I understand why it’s unpopular with a lot of fans. Truly, I do. A brutally long, six month, 162 game season all boiling down to a winner-take-all matchup isn’t exactly “fair” or “good for the health of the fans.” I get it. I’m with the times. I’m hip. Ducca ducca ducca ducca ducca ducca, etc. Playoff baseball is the most anxiety-inducing thing in the world. This last October, for example, I was a nervous wreck despite having almost no reason to be. If my memory serves me correctly, and I trust that it does, the Red Sox never trailed in a series, so I watched exactly 0 innings where an elimination was imminent. Knowing that, it seems likely that if they ever do play in the Wild Card Game, I will most likely spontaneously combust (like a Dodgers fan does whenever Joe Panik hits a go-ahead homer against them). I know that this fate almost certainly awaits a future iteration of myself. Someday, the 101-win Red Sox will lose a nail-biter in the Wild Card Game to the 83-win Seattle Mariners, and I will look back on this dumb article I’ve written, and I will want to strangle myself. I know that in my head, but the heart wants what the heart wants.
In its short existence, the dual-wild card playoff format has given us a treasure trove of whacky baseball moments, the kind of stuff you don’t get in any other sport because other sports are dumb. (For example, tennis. Oh wow, the people hit the ball back and forth a lot! Neat-o! You want to make tennis a real sport? Make the net 30 feet tall. Then we can talk.) We’ve seen some pretty incredible things in the Wild Card Game, including:
- The incredible back-and-forth affair between the Royals and the A’s in 2014, which featured crazy comebacks, Paul Rudd, and Jon Lester in an Athletics uniform (vomit emoji).
- The Infamous Infield Fly Kerfuffle of 2012 (trademark pending)
- Buck Showalter, in 2016, randomly choosing to pitch Ubaldo Jiménez (19-8, 2.88 ERA (in 2010)) instead of Zachkhck Britton and it very predictably, in the words of The Script, “falling to pieces.”
Every year we seem to be blessed with an October moment that fans should live for. In that respect, the Wild Card Game is arguably the most consistent, effective form of baseball entertainment the league has. So sure, some good teams might not be afforded an opportunity to succeed that reflects their record or talent level. Some Pirates fans might have smashed a few television sets, some people might be eternally confused about the difference between the infield and the outfield thanks to the infield fly, and when Britton eventually dies, he’s definitely going to return as a ghost that haunts the visitor’s bullpen in the Roger’s Centre. But on the whole, the Wild Card Game is absolutely worth it.
The only thing that could make it better is upping the stakes – and not just for the Wild Card Game. For the entire MLB Postseason.
NBA Street, Vol. 2
When I was a kid growing up, I wasn’t allowed to have a video game console (or to watch SpongeBob, Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy, or Caillou). I was stuck with my older sister’s hand-me-down pink Gameboy Advance, which my family called the “Gamegirl.” The only game I had for it was Lord of the Rings, and I never beat the 1st level because there were too many goddamn orcs. (I understand they were trying to stay loyal to the movies, where the heroes were outmatched by those creepy things about a million to one, but at what cost? My childhood sanity, apparently.)
Anyway, my cousin had a PS2, and whenever we went and visited him over the summer, we would spend hours playing games that I now consider classics. Digimon Rumble Arena 2, Jeopardy, Jet X20, Backyard Baseball 2005, NBA Live 2003, Tony Hawk Underground 2, MVP Baseball 2005. We spent hours launching fishes in Twisted Toytown with the weird seal Digimon, draining 3’s with Wally Szczerbiak and Ben Wallace on the Sonics (RIP), smashing homers with Jon Dowd, and doing whatever you do in skateboarding with Ben Frankin and the strange alien character.
NBA Street, Vol. 2 was another of our favorites. It was a 3-on-3, anything goes showdown on the pavement between the best players the NBA had to offer. The best part of this game was a unique added wrinkle that made every matchup even more fun: whenever you beat a team, you could steal a player from them to add to your own. Each win helped you grow stronger until you were a juggernaut, throwing elbows, crushing dreams, and dominating the blacktop.
I’m sure you see where I’m going with this because you’re smart, and I am a good writer who shows instead of tells, but just in case, I’ll tell you anyway: the MLB playoffs should adopt an NBA Street-style rule, where every time you advance a round, you get to claim a player off of your vanquished opponent’s team.
How would it work?
The basic outline for this plan is relatively simple: following a playoff series victory (including the Wild Card Game), the winning team would have the opportunity to select any player from the losing team’s 25-man roster (meaning that if a star player happened to sit out that series, and wasn’t on the 25-man roster, he would not be eligible to be selected), and place them on their roster. Barring an injury, that player would then have to remain on his new team’s postseason roster for the rest of the playoffs, so whoever the winning team picks, they’re stuck with. This isn’t the British comedy-drama television series Cold Feet, which ran from 1997-2003. There will be no cold feet.
If that team loses in the next round, the player they selected is still eligible to be chosen. So, for example, lets say that when the Yankees beat the Athletics in the Wild Card Game this year, they selected Matt Chapman. The next round, they lost to the Red Sox (there was a 16-1 game, which was kind of humiliating for the Yankees. Not trying to drub any of this up or anything, cause I know it probably is a bad memory for Yankees fans. I’m just trying to be an objective reporter, and the facts are that the Yankees lost to the Red Sox three out of four times, or 75% of the time, in the playoffs. Again, this article isn’t about that, so I won’t get into more detail, but it happened, and you should be aware of it). The Red Sox, then, could choose any player that was on the Yankees roster for the Divisional Series, including Matt Chapman. They could take whoever they wanted, or they could stand pat and take nobody. I don’t care. They’re the Red Sox oats.
This idea could be played around with to change the logistics, but the basic premise is promising. The potential possibilities for players teaming up, and for showdowns between stars, is tantalizing, and the deeper you delve into it, the more appealing the positives of this idea become. Let’s examine a few of them.
Reason #1: The postseason would be injected with excitement (like steroids, but legal)
The MLB playoffs are already the most exciting in all of sports. In the NFL, we’re about 20 years into an era where you can essentially pencil in the Patriots, Steelers, or Peyton Manning’s team as the AFC’s Super Bowl representative. While their opponents may have changed throughout the years, and even had a few successful tries, none have had staying power. The dynasties have outlasted everyone, fielding the best teams, which usually wind up winning. Similarly, in the NBA, we’re knee-deep into the Warriors Era, which, depending on the fates of Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, could only be just beginning. The better team almost always wins a best-of-seven series in basketball, unless they suffer some ill-timed injuries, or they start Chris Paul (which is essentially the same thing). Even in March Madness, the wildest event in sports, we’re usually greeted with glorious upsets in the opening rounds, and the occasional cinderella run to the Final Four or Championship (*cough* Butler *cough*), but nobody has ever finished the job. The titans of the sport maintain their stranglehold on success, and with only a Gordon Hayward half-court heave even threatening to knock them off the mountaintop.
Only in baseball is there a real, tangible sense of suspense. It is a sport ruled by the random; anything can go in a single game, and with series as short as they play, the best teams still require a large dose of luck to emerge victorious. Heck, there’s a chance that the winner of the AL Central this season will be the worst team to make the playoffs in the American League, but just getting into October means you’ve got decent enough odds. Even if a 100-win Goliath greets you in the opening round, a player can catch fire for five games and change everything.
This new wrinkle would enhance what is already the MLB playoffs’ greatest strength. Each round would increase the level of competition until the World Series showdown looks like Avengers Infinity War (which is to say, filled with stars, but still well executed, and also at the end half of the Universe dies). Say the Angels, by some miracle, make the postseason. Naturally, they’d lose right away – but suddenly, Mike Trout is manning center field for the Indians instead of *squints at the Indians outfield depth chart, which they’ve basically ignored this offseason* uh, Johnny Damon? Teams getting stronger as the postseason goes on, and stars like Mike Trout playing deep into October, is inarguably good for the game; not only the product on the field, but in the interest its going to garner. Star players would fill holes on the contenders, and fans around the world would have the opportunity to see lineups loaded with talent.
Reason #2: The Matt Stairs Effect
Perhaps it’s just the baseball card collector in me, but I like my favorite players to either spend their entire career with one team, or to wear as many uniforms as possible. Pimp yourselves out, players, because there is hardly a more beautiful sight than a baseball reference page filled with tons of single seasons on random clubs.
With this new system, a player has the potential to suit up for as many as four different teams in the playoffs, dutifully slipping on new uni (with a potentially new uniform number) each subsequent round. In a perfect world, a player would also get dealt at the trade deadline, bringing their season total to five teams. At that rate, they could play for the entire MLB in just six seasons (math). Imagine Steve Pearce, the king of the AL East, but he’s done it for all 30 ball clubs. Nothing could possibly make me more happy.
Reason #3: Pranks!
How hilarious would it be for a player to continually lose in the postseason, but keep getting picked up as the stolen player? Over and over again, they think their season is done, but they just keep having to play on. Ain’t no rest for the wicked, baby.
And think about the pundit narrative that would stick with these players. You thought David Price had a bad postseason pedigree? Imagine what would be said of a player who lost four postseason series in a single year – and if they did that year after year.
“This guy doesn’t have a winning mentality,” Harold Reynolds would say, before quickly adding, unprompted, “Homers and doubles are not calculated the same in slugging percentage, in case you were wondering.”
“HEEEeeeeeeEEEEEEEE is GARbagE!” Christopher Russo would say.
“I am Bob Nightengale. What is baseball?” Bob Nightengale would say.
It would be baseball purgatory. At a certain point, that no longer is playing a game. It is the Bad Place, losing every postseason series he ever appears in, but having to just keep going. If that happened to me, I would pay someone to break both of my ankles with mallets (I watched Misery recently. It was CHILLING). Teams could literally collude to devise some sort of elaborate plan just to mess with a player by doing this. Sign me up.
Reason #4: Rivalry matchups would get a whole lot more interesting
The Red Sox and Yankees played in the postseason for the first time since 2004 this last year, and the anticipation was through the roof. With this rule in place, and the potential to truly humiliate someone on your arch-rival, it would be turned up to 11. I would have hated to have to watch a Yankees player in a Red Sox uniform for the rest of the postseason, ultimately culminating in them receiving a World Series ring. But, I wouldn’t say no to us stealing Aaron Judge, and using his roster spot just to force Yankees fans to see their golden boy in Red Sox gear. Oh wait…they already have. We wouldn’t even have to play Judge; in fact, I’d rather we didn’t. But I don’t think anyone in Red Sox Nation would have been opposed to forcing him to go out onto the field between innings and stand on an elevated, circus-like platform while he repeatedly says into a microphone, “I am Aaron Judge, and I play for the Boston Red Sox, the best team in baseball. The Yankees can eat my farts.” In the words of Nathan Fielder, say it again, Aaron.
The celebrations would be a lot more awkward. If Judge had been taken by the Red Sox, what would he have done after the World Series? He would get a trophy, too, so he would have reason to celebrate, but what’s the guy supposed to do when the Sox blasted “New York, New York” in the locker room after the game? Does he just stand in the corner uncomfortably, silently weeping? Or would Stockholm Syndrome set in, with Judge bombastically singing along while doing the Rockettes’ dance, dressed in a Red Sox speedo and nothing else, and forever endearing himself into the hearts of the fans that were once his sworn enemies? It’s a lose-lose situation, and any rule that can put a Yankees player in that is a win in my book.
On the flip side, the chance for sabotage is real, and hopefully encouraged. Teams could send in players as double agents with the sole intent to screw over the team that beat them. There would be a lot for a player to balance as he prepared to play for a different team; they have a chance to win the World Series, but what if they get injured on a team that doesn’t cut their paycheque? (I was experimenting with the British spelling, but I didn’t like it). There would be a whole new strategy in choosing a player that you are confident wouldn’t sabotage you. The MLB would become a center for espionage and diplomacy, with trade deadline deals being swung not for players, but for teams promising not to sabotage others come October. You could make an entire HBO series about this, like Hard Knocks mixed with Game of Thrones mixed with Boardwalk Empire.
Reason #5: Deserving veterans would have a chance to win a ring
Max Scherzer and Mike Trout, two of the game’s best players, don’t have World Series rings. Neither do Ichiro or Bartolo Colon, former stars and fan-favorites in the twilight of their careers. Adrián Beltré, David Wright, and Joe Mauer all just retired without any World Series Championships to their name, but they were players that helped define an era of the game. Any of these kinds of players could be prime targets to be stolen in October, for their skill, or for their reputation. Getting a star like Ichiro a World Series would be a huge boon for the team that made it happen. What fan wouldn’t want a chance to see that? What fan wouldn’t buy that jersey? A heartless one, perhaps, but certainly not a cool one that you could go bowling with. And isn’t that what this is all about?
Reason #6: The strategy behind the decision would be fascinating to watch
A victorious team could use their selection to fix a hole on their roster that they failed to address at the trade deadline, add to an area of strength (like a bullpen), or to simply take the best available player regardless of how they might fit with your existing squad. For example, if a National League team beat the Mets in the Wild Card Game, would it be smarter to take Jacob deGrom knowing that he can only realistically pitch one game in the NLDS, or to take Robinson Cano to shore up a weak second base? Or what if a team faces the Brewers, but their lineup doesn’t have a real fit for Christian Yelich? What if Yelich is in a slump, too, and they already have an excellent bullpen, so Josh Hader would be mostly unnecessary, but their catching is really weak, so Yasmani Grandal could help? These are difficult questions without clear answers that different teams would surely take different approaches to. Watching that play out would add a lot of drama to the postseason; teams could even make a mini, “The Decision” inspired television show to announce who they’re selecting.
Further, team chemistry could have a big effect on how things shake out. For example, I find it difficult to believe that, had the Brewers ended up beating the Dodgers in the NLCS, they’d have taken Manny Machado simply due to his tumultuous history with Milwaukee. He might have given the Brewers a great chance to win, but it would have pissed Christian Yelich off. It’s a difficult balancing act to find the player that not only fills a need on your team, but won’t disrupt the group of players that has gotten you that far.
And there is something to be said for this group winning a World Series; every star player shining, every role player stepping up in the biggest moments, every nameless relief pitcher turning into Mariano Rivera. When a team comes together and wins in October, a team you’ve watched through highs and lows for six months, it’s incomparable. Imagine that the Indians took Mookie Betts from the Red Sox after the 2016 ALDS. Rajai Davis likely would have lost all of his playing time, and then his Game 7 homer probably wouldn’t have happened. Ignoring the ultimate result of that series, that moment was special. It still would have been special if a star player temporarily suiting up for the Indians had done it, but in a much different way. The opportunity to root for your team, warts and all, with the chance that some random role player hits the biggest homer in the history of your franchise might be worth more than the same result, or even a better one, with a borrowed, foreign star. At the end of the day, some teams might find it better to stick with the squad they have (Now, if we’re talking NBA, Danny Ainge would take the team’s 1st-round draft pick, plus a pick swap and call it a day).
Reason #7: It would help neutralize the negative effect of the Wild Card Game
The Wild Card Game is unfair, random, and brutal. This rule helps to ameliorate that. A team that wins the Wild Card Game will enter the Division Series with an extra star on their roster. The risk of the Wild Card remains, but the possible reward is enticing. Would teams be more willing to finish second in the division with this chance available to make the Division Series a more even match? Would the added star power sway things too dramatically in the favor of the wild card team? Am I comfortable with my masculinity? I don’t have the answer to any of those questions. All we can do is speculate.
Unlike some other ideas meant to spice up the game, this one seems relatively plausible. It would be easy to implement, and would add an additional layer of intrigue to the postseason that would be sure to invigorate fans. Seeing superstars amass on the pennant winnings teams would make for some thrilling World Series’. Plus, it’s reasonable to expect bumps in fan interest and revenue sales as a result. Come next October when Jose Altuve is manning second base for the Athletics, and Corey Kluber is pitching Game 1 of the World Series against Jacob deGrom and the Rockies, everyone will be tuning in to see how one of the most fascinating new developments in baseball will play out. (The Pick: Rockies win in 6. Book it, Dano.)
Featured Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/63704136@N00/30295081643