The thing about the baseball playoffs is that they are thrillingly, cathartically unfair. In a perfect, hermetically sealed world, they wouldn't exist at all. The whole structure of competitive baseball is based on the fact that one individual game barely matters at all: It matters precisely .617283965 percent. You don't get too excited by wins and you don't get too depressed by losses. This is central to the whole experience. This is what makes baseball baseball.
It's funny to think about now, but there was a time, not that long ago, really, that we had essentially no baseball postseason to speak of, that this whole thing was settled like Premier League Soccer, or mid-'80s college football, or Rotisserie-scoring fantasy sports. As recently as 1968 -- the year O.J. Simpson won the Heisman Trophy, the year Will Smith and Ashley Judd were born -- there were no playoffs. If you won your league, you went to the World Series, and if you didn't, tough luck, pal. The 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers? 104 wins and no postseason. The regular season wasn't a prelude, a sifting: It was the whole point.
That baseball's postseason is a "gauntlet of randomness" has long been understood, but we don't appreciate it enough. The postseason is something different than the regular season entirely; it is not all that different, really, from ending a tied soccer match with penalty kicks. The playoffs are baseball-like, but they're not quite baseball. They're CliffsNotes baseball. It is impossible to determine who the better team is when they are playing a seven-game series. It's difficult to tell who the better team is after 162 games. Seven games is nothing. If the Astros played the Red Sox in a seven-game series right now, they'd have at least a 1 in 5 chance of winning that series. (OK, well, maybe not the Astros.)
Which brings me to the wild-card games, or, as my friend Joe Sheehan memorably dubbed them, "the coin-flip games." This year, because Tampa Bay and Texas tied for the second wild card, we essentially get three coin-flip games: Rays-Rangers tonight, Reds-Pirates tomorrow and Rays/Rangers-Indians on Wednesday. This is going to be exciting and fun and I wouldn't miss it for the world. But have no illusions: It's going to be meaningless.
Look at tonight's game. David Price is one of the finer pitchers in baseball, but, for whatever reason, he's terrible against the Rangers. Now, that might mean something for tonight. Or it won't. There is not a single possible outcome for Price, or the Rangers, that doesn't fall under the vast umbrella of statistical noise. So much of baseball is about variance, about all the millions of different things that can happen in a game ultimately evening out over the long run. But there is no long run here. It is context-less penalty kicks. It is .617283965 percent. The same thing will happen on Tuesday, and on Wednesday. I used to think that it was insane that the Division Series only went five games, that a team could be "rewarded" for a Division championship by a three-game shot in the dark. But the wild card games make that feel like an endless trek across the desert.
This begs the question: Is this fun worth it? Context is important here. The reason that the deciding games of the Division Series last year -- remember, all five went all five games -- meant so much was that they were a culmination of a series: You had to make it through the other four games to get to the point that the stakes were so high. Even in a short series like that, they felt earned. When this happens in seven games, like the NLCS last year and the World Series the year before, you get a sense that, by Game 7, the teams are palpably sick of each other. But when you just have one context-less elimination game, two teams flying in from wherever the heck they just were, playing at an odd hour under odd conditions, it's not baseball. It's an exhibition that somehow means everything. It feels like … well, it feels like a coin flip.
Is this something that should be fixed? I dunno. I'm not sure the angels are on my side here; the average sports fan's first response to an exciting win-or-die game, everything on the line, immense drama in front of sold-out crowds … it's probably not "oh, no, that's terrible," no matter how much I stomp my feet and pout about context and fairness. (And getting as many people to watch as possible is the point.) A reasonable compromise might be to make wild-card games best-of-three series -- it would make it a little less random, and it would serve to tire out the wild-card team for the next series, which is something that was supposed to be part of the whole wild-card experience, the you're punished for not winning your division idea MLB is sorta ignoring now -- but it's hard enough to keep the World Series out of November already without adding two or three days to the schedule. The fact is, people like me, the ones obsessed with "fairness" and "finding out who the right team is," are impractical by nature. Deep down, we wouldn't be satisfied unless the World Series ran 81 games and also somehow factored in farm system depth, stadium beer variety and front office purity of spirit.
Because that's what this is really about, I bet, for me and for all the other diehard baseball people who love the postseason but still always feel a bit melancholy about it. Baseball is enjoyed because it is slow, because it is there for you, every day, every win and every loss making a difference, but not that much of a difference. The postseason speeds everything up. The postseason hurdles forward. It goes too quickly. It makes it closer to ending. The postseason reminds me that baseball is going to end soon. I looked around yesterday and saw 15 games going on, some important, some not. The next three days, there will be only one. Soon after that, there will be none. When we complain about the postseason being a crapshoot, about it being a "gauntlet of randomness," we're not really upset about the randomness. We just want more games. We always want more games. There are worse crimes.