Thursday, September 25, 2014

Baseball’s Quiet September: Do You Remember Pennant Races?

"It was probably the biggest hit of my career, maybe one of the biggest hits I'll ever get,” said Evan Langoria. “It was just an unbelievable memory, a great day overall, and something that's just hard to put into words."

Is Langoria talking about a postseason appearance? Nope. Is he referring to his only foray into the World Series? Nope. He is reflecting on the last night of the 2011 Major League Baseball season, when the Rays overcame a 7-0 deficit to the Yankees to make the playoffs following a collapse from the Red Sox.

2011 tampa rays
On an incredible night that featured four heart-stopping games going down to the final out within minutes, baseball had reached its peak – and has subsequently pissed it all away.

If those games happened this year, they would mean nothing. The addition of a second wild card has robbed baseball of any semblance of relevancy in September. In fact, if it weren’t for the power of Derek Jeter, baseball would be completely and totally ignored.

The second Wild Card could end up being – potentially even more than his failed drug policies – Bud Selig’s enduring legacy. The league has increase revenues in spite of their incompetent leader. It is similar to the regard that NFL owners hold they lying Roger Goodell in because their bank accounts have fattened. As if Selig or Goodell were responsible for DVRs, Netflix, social media and the million other things that have put a premium on live sports and created time-shifted viewing.

This year, there is no drama in the baseball season with a week to go. The Oakland Athletics have been playing historically bad baseball for nearly two months and should still sail easily into the postseason. The five NL playoff teams have been established for weeks now.

But there’s an alternate universe out there where the Kansas City Royals’ push for its first postseason berth in three decades is daily, national news as they battle with the collapsing A’s. In the NL, the Pirates and Giants could be waging a Wild Card battle for the ages. Instead, they are basically killing time until a one-game playoff.

It would make sense if an extra MLB playoff game would bring the type of windfall the NFL is chasing – ESPN pays more than $100 million per Monday Night Football game, meaning two extra playoff games could add an absurd $300 million to the NFL’s bottom line. MLB does not command anything near that for a pair of games that draw less than 5 million viewers.

Last year’s Tampa Bay/Cleveland Wild Card lost in the ratings to a regular episode from Sons of Anarchy. I feel like FX isn’t paying $100 million per Sons of Anarchy episode.

So this one extra playoff has rendered an entire month of baseball an exercise in the pointless. I follow the Nationals here in DC and they clinch seemingly years ago. Ditto for the Orioles. No one in the District has been talking baseball after the sudden surge following the #clinchmas. I mean, what is there to do besides count down until the playoffs?

The reward for winning a division title is supposed be enough, by avoiding the one-game Wild Card playoff. While that may be true for the teams involved, it has elicited nothing more than a yawn from fans. They have been trained to accept that you either make the tournament or you do not. Whether the Pirates play in the Wild Card round or the Division Series provides absolutely zero interest to the general public.

pennant race empty seats
As such, the sport has been completely wiped away this month. Did no one in the MLB offices realize that these pennant races were keeping the sport relevant against the football goliath?

Instead, this month of September been 100% football talk and that’s it. Even European soccer, thanks to the strength of the Premier League, and the new-fangled NASCAR Chase have attracted more attention.

When the Wild Card was first introduced in 1994, it was done largely to enhance the regular season. As the number of teams grew, the two-division format had grown outdated. The sport faced a similar problem to now – most years featured little intrigue in September, though it was epic when it did.

From 1995 through 2011, the Wild Card provided nearly every season with September intrigue. They weren’t all at the level of 2011 but they provided indelible images. This September, the only indelible images came from a Gatorade commercial.

You can’t put the toothpaste back and baseball has destroyed what set it apart in American sports. Despite having the longest regular season, it had the most intense. There was something unique about a pennant race as the temperatures drop, the kids go back to school and the pressure ratcheted it up.

Instead, baseball has radio silence. By the time the playoffs start, many casual sports fans will have already moved on and forgotten. It has made baseball an even more local sport than it already was – who outside of the District really cares about the Nats, since they have been ignored nationally for a month?

As someone who loves the sport of baseball, it’s truly disheartening to see its soul ripped.

Thanks, Selig. Your reign of terror can’t end soon. Congratulations on killing the pennant race. 

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