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Second look for playoffs

Baseball officials will finalize details today on a plan to double the number of teams in the playoffs by including the second-place finishers from each division.

The move is considered by some officials to be the first of a series of dramatic changes to the game. But it also is considered to be the only one owners believe could get the requisite approval from the players union before what are expected to be acrimonious labor negotiations.

As a result, decisions on changes such as realignment into three divisions, adoption of inter-league play, and _ take note, Tampa Bay _ the possibility of expansion could be delayed for up to a year because the subjects likely will be bargaining chips in the upcoming labor talks, said Boston Red Sox executive John Harrington, chairman of the Schedule Format Committee.

"We won't be postponing these decisions," Harrington said. "It may take until the completion of the negotiations in terms of everything."

Harrington's committee will recommend adding a best-of-five series pitting the four division champions against the second-place teams from the opposite division. The winners would meet in the traditional best-of-seven League Championship Series for the right to play in the World Series.

Owners will hear details of the recommendation this afternoon and are expected to vote Thursday to implement the change next season, pending players union approval.

"It's a single-purpose change capable of being negotiated fairly cleanly with the players association without a lot of ramifications," Harrington said.

The other discussed changes, which are more complex and inter-related, would require more extensive deliberations with the union, Harrington said.

The labor negotiations also are expected to be complex, because owners are planning to ask the players to agree to a salary cap.

As a result, Harrington said, it could be 12 months before the owners can make decisions on all of the possible changes. "And implementation, God knows, could take place over several years," he said.

For example, he said some owners "feel that if expansion is in the wind we should wait to make the move to three divisions" until it is decided where the new teams will be located.

Tampa Bay leaders have been discussing a best-case scenario in which an expansion team is awarded in early 1994 and begins play in 1995. Harrington was less optimistic: "We might be lucky to have a decision in 1995 (on where to expand) and the implementation of expansion could be in '96 or '97."

As owners gather here for a three-day session of summer meetings, the expanded playoff format is the only major action scheduled for a vote. There will be some unofficial talk about expansion and significant conversations about the ongoing search for a commissioner, a system of revenue-sharing among the owners and strategy for the labor talks.

The decision to expand the playoffs is not expected to face much opposition _ probably just Rangers partner George W. Bush.

"I don't like the thought of a team going through a 162-game season and coming in second place and then being able to win a three-of-five playoff," Bush said. "Baseball should reward its marathon runners and not its sprinters."

There may be some debate on whether to advance the two second-place teams in each league, or the two non-championship teams with the best records. The committee slightly favors the second-place team format because it is easier for fans to understand.

The biggest problem with rewarding the second-place teams is that some don't deserve it. Since divisional play began in 1969, there have been two instances when second-place teams finished with losing records _ the 1983 Royals (79-83) and 1984 Braves (80-82) and Astros (80-82). In two other years, second-place teams finished at .500 _ the 1973 Cardinals and the 1984 Twins and Angels. In 48 league races, there have been 16 times when a third-place team had a better record than the second-place team in the other division.

The committee still is considering several possible forms of home-field advantage for the best-of-five series _ 3-2, 2-2-1, 4-1 and a sliding scale where the division champ gets more home games based on the size of its lead.

Harrington said the new series would be added to the baseball calendar by compacting the 162-game schedule by eliminating a few off days and that the World Series still would end in late October.

On the search for a commissioner, owners will have plenty to discuss _ what the job should be, when the job should be filled, and, of course, who should be hired.

The restructuring report defining the job is not ready to be acted on and there is a split among owners as to whether to hire the commissioner now or to wait until the labor talks and other changes are complete.

A new look?

This is how the new playoffs format would be set up, with the division winner facing the second-place team from the other division. Here's a look based on last year's standings:

First round

(Best of five)

Pittsburgh (NL East 1st) vs. Cincinnati (NL West 2nd).

Atlanta (NL West 1st) vs. Montreal (NL East 2nd).

Toronto (AL East 1st) vs. Minnesota (AL West 2nd).

Oakland (AL West 1st) vs. Milwaukee (AL East 2nd).

League Championship Series

(Best of seven)

Pittsburgh-Cincinnati winner vs. Atlanta-Montreal winner.

Toronto-Minnesota winner vs. Oakland-Milwaukee winner.

World Series

(Best of seven)

NL champion vs. AL champion.

Second-best?

Baseball owners are considering a plan that would expand the playoffs to include the second-place team in each division, rather than the two runners-up with the best records. Consider, in the 48 league races over the 24 years of divisional play, there have been:

Two second-place teams with losing records;

Two second-place teams with .500 records;

18 third-place teams with better records than the second-place team in the other division;

Eight fourth-place teams with better records than the second-place teams;

Four fifth-place teams with better records than the second-place teams.

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