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Second look for playoffs

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Baseball officials will finalize details today on a plan to expand the playoffs by including the second-place team from each division. It's the first of what some expect to be a series of dramatic changes to the game.

The Schedule Format Committee will recommend a best-of-five series pitting the four division champions against the second-place teams from the opposite division, according to committee chairman John Harrington. The winners would then 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. The proposal, however, still requires approval from the players union.

Harrington said decisions on changes such as realignment into three divisions, adoption of inter-league play, and _ take note, Tampa Bay _ the possibility of further expansion could be delayed because they may be woven into the upcoming labor negotiations between owners and players.

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

The labor negotiations, with the owners planning on asking the players to agree to a salary cap, are expected to drag on until spring. Factor in the complexity and the inter-relationships of the three topics and Harrington said it could take owners up to 12 months to decide on the 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 where an expansion team was awarded in early 1994 and began 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," he said.

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 upcoming labor negotiations.

The decision to expand the playoffs is not expected to face much opposition _ probably just Texas 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-game playoff," Bush said Tuesday. "Baseball should reward its marathon runners and not its sprinters. How's that for a cute little quote? So far that argument has yielded no extra votes. I'm the only one."

While the idea of expanding playoffs should pass, 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 has a slight preference for the second-place team format because it is easier for fans to understand, Harrington said.

The biggest problem with rewarding the second-place teams is that some don't deserve it. Since the advent of divisional play in 1969, there have been two instances when second-place teams had losing records _ the 1983 Royals (79-83) and 1984 Braves (80-82) and Astros (80-82). In two other years, the second-place teams finished at .500 _ the 1973 Cardinals and both the 1984 Twins and Angels. In the 48 league races over 24 seasons, there have been 16 instances when a third-place team in one division finished with a better record than the second-place team in the other division.

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

Harrington also said the series would be added to the baseball calendar by compacting the 162-game schedule by a few days and that the World Series would still 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 is best for the job.

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. Baseball has been without a commissioner since Fay Vincent resigned in September.

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.