David Ortiz’s go-ahead grand slam in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the ALCS was one exciting moment this October. (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia)
I think it’s safe to say that I have enjoyed each game this MLB postseason more than any regular season game. And that’s the problem with baseball: The regular season isn’t compelling enough for people to be interested come playoff time.
Because of its length, the regular season naturally lacks the win-or-go-home tension of the playoffs, and baseball’s popularity suffers as a result. It’s hard for fans to feel any sense of urgency when their team plays 162 games.
The great thing about playoff baseball is the way the fans hang on every pitch. It’s awesome to hear the crowd cheer loudly for a leadoff walk in the sixth inning. That’s the sort of thing that only draws polite applause in the regular season.
Of course, the 162-game schedule has its advantages. The large sample size is a statistician’s dream, and advances in statistics have made it easier for front offices to evaluate players. It also ensures that the standings reflect the true strength of the teams. Because of the balancing effect of the 162-game schedule, the teams that make the playoffs truly deserve to be there. If the season ended after 48 games, the Yankees would have won the AL East with a record of 30-18. Clearly the Yankees were not the best team in the East.
The 16-game schedule in the NFL makes the regular season the most intense in American professional sports. Each game has a quasi-playoff atmosphere. The effect is greater in college football, where the current format means that one loss can eliminate your team from championship contention. When you consider that, it becomes clear why football has surpassed baseball as America’s favorite sport. Fans are drawn to drama, and football provides that in a way that baseball cannot.
But, baseball’s playoffs ratchet up the intensity. Especially this season, with many dominant pitching performances, a single swing can win the game. Two games in the Tigers-Red Sox ALCS ended 1-0. The tension of close games like that simply can’t be matched in other sports. In the regular season, baseball’s languid pace is lamented; in the playoffs it adds to the drama. The way the anticipation builds with every pitch creates tremendously anxious moments which make the eventual climax all the more intense.
It was amazing the way the crowd in Boston erupted after David Ortiz’s and Shane Victorino’s late grand slams in Games 2 and 6 of the ALCS. One moment, the fans at Fenway are clapping nervously, only because it feels more natural than squirming; the next, they’re jumping around and screaming as loud as they can.
I’d argue that baseball has the second-most compelling playoff format in American sports (behind hockey, which combines the same sense of tension with frantic end-to-end play). It’s a shame more people don’t watch.
But this year’s World Series is shaping up to be a good one. It features the two teams with the best regular season records, and two passionate (if annoying) fanbases. I just hope it gets the attention it deserves.