So because I don’t really have any team I’m a longtime devotee of fighting for a baseball playoff berth, and I’m honestly torn between my colleague’s passion– the Cubs–and my new-found obsession–the Marlins–as they battle for a legitimate post-season berth to the deciding WNBA first round playoff game on ESPN last time featuring the Connecticut Sun, a team that finished 18 games over .500, doing battle with the 19-21 Minnesota Lynx. In a winner-take-all setting, with such disparate regular season records, the fact that the Sun eventually made short work of Minnesota by a 90-75 score shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.
But as I glanced and saw the fourth quarter begin, I realize that the chants were “Go, Lynx!” . I realized only then that the WNBA had structured their first-round best-of-threes to minimize travel in a way where the higher-seeded team received their home court advantage through games 1 and 2, not games 1 and 3 as has typically been the case in best-of-threes nowadays in minor league baseball and, way, way back in the earliest days of expanded NBA playoffs.
And also not what major league baseball decided when it expanded its wild card round to a best-of-three scenario last year, after much debate and consternation about what would be a fair incentive to encourage times to play for byes and home field advantage. Ostensibly for what is perceived as a significant advantage, the higher seeds (the third-best division champion and the first-best wild card qualifier) play host for a full series that could ultimately resemble a typical regular season weekend.
Which also means that fans of those wild card qualifiers don’t get a single first-round home playoff game . Last year, for example, the first time Padres fans were able to celebrate their team’s ability to qualify for a real post-season for the first time since 2006 , let alone their conquering of the Mets was when they hosted the Dodgers in the NLDS.
So when I realized that it was the Lynx that were hosting the deciding game of three despite their losing regular season record, the light bulb went off and methinks–why shouldn’t baseball do the same thing?!?!
Before you get dismissive of such radical thinking bear in mind baseball’s defense, besides the whole COVID paranoia that was still a factor as the expanded playoff structure was being discussed, was to assure that seasons already being expanded into November by this new first round wouldn’t approach Thanksgiving. So building in the potential of a travel day in a traditional home-and-away format as MLB had done with their Division Series since 2010 wasn’t in the cards. Fine, I agree with that.
But go back and look at what happened in and the scheduing of winner-take-all games in Division Series prior to that. Between 1998-2009, the 2-2-1 format and a desire to not extend MLB into November at all required Game 5s to be played without a travel day. (Between 1995-1997, the first iterations of the Division Series were a 2-3 format with the higher-ranked team having the final three at home).
On 12 occasions, Game 5s were played within 24 hours of the end of game 4. Sometimes, those series required cross-country travel. For two consecutive years, the A’s and Yankees saw their series go down to deciding games. The famous “Jeter flip” occurred in one of them. The A’s, who have not been to a World Series since 1990, were in eight division series in all through the 2000s, losing in six of the eight, but they produced some of the most thrilling and crucial post-season moments of all.
As did the majority of these deciding Game 5s. In eight of those 12 series, the lower-seeded road team emerged victorious. As did a ninth, our colleague’s favorite team, when rain and a hard start date for the championship series required them to return to Washington in a last-ditch attempt to extend their first defense of a World Championship in more than a century and won a thrilling 9-8 slugfest in 2017.
Starting pitchers would be flown to the other city in advance, sometimes on private planes, to assure they were well-rested for the elimination game. Somehow, travel schedules were put in place to ensure that teams who finished their Game 4s even in late evenings would make their destinations. No deciding Game 5 was ever postponed. Was it possibly unfair to the team with home field advantage to have to play with such a disadvantage? Well, their opponents had the same travel schedule. And if they indeed wanted to avoid it, they could have won three of the first four.
And for anyone who thinks it would be unfair for a better team to play an elimination game on the road as the Sun did, consider this: Had they swept, as the other three top-seeded WNBA teams did, that elimination game wouldn’t have happened. The reward for the Lynx was to indeed give their home fans at least one final shot to cheer them on and thank them for the accomplishments they were able to achieve.
Something neither the Cubs nor Marlins, and especially the team that winds up third in the American League wild card race (we’re looking specifically you, my Mariners) will likely have a chance to do.
And to me, that just seems unfair. Especially since there’s such a significant and telling sample size that suggests that if a road team is good enough to win once in the first two games they at least deserve a shot to perform in front of their fans, in their home stadium, and sell some post-season merch on site. And if a team is indeed good enough to win out in the regular season, it shouldn’t be too much to ask them to do that again against a theoretically weaker opponent.
And, indeed, in just over 30% of the cases documented by the Division Series history, that’s exactly what happened. The higher-seeded home team won and advanced.
In baseball, succeeding three out of ten times these days could qualify you for the Hall of Fame.
Perhaps my wild idea isn’t quite worthy of enshrinement . But I hope you think it’s worth musing about.