We always hear a baseball season described as a "marathon." The long run from an often cold spring to the chill of Halloween. I would add that it is uphill, the climb of a mountain with your team on your back.
As all the teams scrape and scrap their way to the top of the mountain to make the postseason, only the best make it and the sudden-death wild-card playoff format is the high-altitude gatekeeper near the peak of Mt. Baseball.
One and done.
Yet after 162 games and many more in spring training, after every way to evaluate your opponent and team based on a series, we decide with one game. This makes no sense from a baseball perspective.
Sure, the one-game playoff with two wild-card teams per league keeps teams in it, and maybe it does magic at the ticket offices, but the concept is inconsistent with a game that has been going on for six months with rotations of pitchers and teams playing to win a series of games. One game is the smallest of sample sizes and baseball, of all sports, knows that the smaller the sample size, the bigger the illusion. My hitting one home run off of Randy Johnson does not make me Babe Ruth.
If you get to the pinnacle of the mountain after a 162-game, snow-covered climb, you deserve to have more than one game to prove your worth. One game is not quality time; it is a snapshot so short that by the time you show the photo to the world, people aren't even sure it ever happened. It is a blink in a dream when you don't even remember falling asleep.
The division winners are sherpa-talented climbers; they earned their keep. The wild cards are the stragglers, maybe fairly punished for not making it on their own. They needed help, luck, bad bounces more than the other teams. Or maybe they just had bad luck and still managed to make it. But I still want to know which team is better, and one game does nothing to convince me that one team is better than another. Absolutely nothing.
No one will claim the Seattle Mariners are the best team in baseball, but put Felix Hernandez on the mound and there will be days when that is true. Or the same for Jose Fernandez and the Marlins. But a team is composed of a mix of pitchers, a revolving door that reflects the caliber of a staff, not a one-man show where one pitcher is hot one day and one is not.
Imagine climbing that mountain and then the first test is decided by some non-baseball metric, like the team who can whistle the loudest. That is just the luck of the draw, good fortune that you have a bunch of good whistlers on your team. It is a flip of a coin in overtime to decide who gets the ball. The better team already showed it was better by getting to the top first through injury and dissent, controversy and talent, Tommy John surgery and instant replays. If you are better -- and I define better as winning more games than the next team -- then why do I need to do it again after six months of frostbite, altitude poisoning and ankle sprains? I already beat you to the top. Now you get to get lucky? If we absolutely must play with wild cards, then give me a couple of games to make sure you didn't just pull that ace from your shoe.
One game is a good movie, but it is a B-movie hack-and-slash horror flick when it comes to taking anything home from it. Baseball does not reside in isolation when you can give one guy the ball and clear the lane. Nor can you sit back and watch one team annihilate another team because one is the Miami Heat and one is not. Any team in baseball can beat any other team in baseball in one game. Why in the world would we make that the playoff standard? We don't just want "any" team to make the next round; we want the better team to make the next round.
I understand that it is a slippery slope, defining "better." I know that eventually it does come down to one game, even if it is a Game 7, but at least it took a series. A team had a chance to be home and on the road, or pitch an ace who was skipped or maybe just respond and adjust to what happened in a fluky game. The entire season is a series of games where we are adjusting and adapting off of a group of games. Can the Marlins beat the Tigers two out of three? Sure, but at least they had to beat Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez a combined twice to do it. That means more than just beating Verlander (and therefore the Tigers) because he got hurt slipping on a banana peel in the locker room during the pregame and was pitching on a broken ankle (and therefore the Tigers slipped on a banana peel).
The more teams that make the playoffs, the less valuable the regular season (especially when home field in the World Series is decided by the All-Star Game). It just becomes position jockeying at the end. We could just decide to have four teams from each division make the playoffs with a bunch of one-game duels to the death, but by then, we shouldn't even bother climbing the mountain. We can just settle it in spring training in a heated trailer at the base of the mountain and call it a year. After 162 games, teams have proven everything they need to prove to sit on top of that mountain and battle it out from there. This is not 16 games a season that are played once a week. This is a game coming at you every single day in every situation you can imagine. If you are good after 162 games, you are good. If you are not, you are not. No excuses. Teams that limp into the playoffs or use a helicopter to get up the mountain should get exposed by the end, not rewarded. Not every team deserves to stand at the peak of that mountain together, especially when it was a race and one team got to the top two weeks before the other.
Once a division is wrapped up and the wild-card teams are in, the last week becomes a ballroom dance of playoff teams, rearranging rotations for that one game. Sure, that might be better than playing out the string, but you had 162 games to avoid being the kitten that is playing with strings. Blame your team.
The Pirates had a great regular season, and it is good to see them finally have success. Good for the game. The Indians are headed to the postseason, but before anyone realizes what happened with those stories, someone will be home and that one game will have been a dream. It would have been nice to see what these teams could do in a series so we get to see more of what made them so energizing, so special (or lucky) in 2013.
A series is a story. One game is just one word. One word can be powerful, but much easier to be misconstrued, misunderstood and unclear. So let's tell these teams stories using baseball language, not that of a firing squad. At least then, when the wild-card games are done, it is more believable that the team that won was just better. Not just the team that threw the lucky punch.