Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has found another way to ruffle the purists’ feathers.
Earlier this week, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported on the league’s supposed plan to shake up the current postseason format, and the changes are both sweeping and borderline radical. As the plan goes, the playoff field would be expanded from five to seven teams per league. The club with the best record in each league would get a bye past the first round of the playoffs, straight to the Division Series.
That first round is where the chaos would ensue. The next-best team would choose between the three Wild Card teams to take on in the first round. The league’s third-best team would get the next choice, and the last two teams remaining would face off to round out the Wild Card Round. That round would feature three best-of-three series hosted exclusively by the team with the better record.
Fans hate it. I had the same reaction at first glance. But despite all the questionable moves Manfred has made as commish, with this one, it seems that he might be onto something.
MLB has struggled mightily with growing the game of baseball among younger generations, in part due to its slower pace of play and in part due to its bizarre unwillingness to market its players. But this move represents a deliberate attempt by Manfred and the league to sell the sport on what American society craves: drama.
I’m not talking the bottom of the ninth inning, bases loaded, full count, two outs type of drama. I’m talking the kind of drama that will inevitably ensue when teams are presented with the option to choose their opponents on the game’s biggest stage.
Much more will be at play than pitching matchups and lineups. Yes, those will guide the actual selections, but the talk from the fans and pundits will circle around the side plots. Which teams had the biggest beanball war in the middle of May? Which team’s second-best starting pitchers talk the most trash to each other on social media? Will the Yankees pick the Red Sox just to beat their rival, or will they avoid the potential humiliation of losing to their hated enemy? Are they soft for choosing the latter? Bloodthirsty for choosing the former? The teams, players and coaches won’t give a shit about any of that. But it’ll get everyone else talking.
And Manfred knows this. That’s part of why his initial vision involves this playoff draft taking place on a live broadcasted Sunday evening spectacle — it’s reality TV.
People will eat it up. Think about it — we spend our downtime keeping up with the Kardashians and poring over who in “The Bachelor” will get the final rose (trust me, I know — I did the latter yesterday). Anywhere we smell drama, even if it’s petty and stupid, we’re sucked in.
Manfred knows this is the model. He knows it’s the model because his league has been embarrassingly surpassed by the NBA and its readiness to create, endorse and spotlight that same type of petty drama between players, coaches, executives and anyone remotely involved in the NBA sphere.
Every time Damian Lillard looks in the general vicinity of Russell Westbrook, it sets the NBA world ablaze. Jimmy Butler made people actually give half a shit about T.J. Warren. Fans ogled over the momentary feud between young rookie Ja Morant and seasoned veteran, three-time champ Steph Curry.
And what, exactly, has that done for the NBA? The league’s popularity has exploded in recent years and, in turn, basketball has been brought to the forefront of almost every sports broadcast or talk show on television. Is it annoying to the real fans? Of course. But what does Adam Silver care? In his world, money really does grow on trees.
There’s a slight catch, though. These beefs? They’re not real. They’re fabricated. The players open the door a crack by calling the other guy a stupidface, and the NBA sphere busts it open with a battering ram and paints the picture that they’re after each other’s families. Then the players publicly talk about how it’s not that deep and everyone needs to chill the fuck out, but the armchair analysts willfully ignore that part because that’s not as entertaining.
That’s what Manfred is going for. He knows the audience he’s trying to cater to — one that will eat up pettiness like dessert and create storylines out of the slightest perception of animosity. It is, after all, what much of American culture thrives on — whether it’s entertainment, politics, sports, you name it.
Maybe Manfred is misguided. Maybe what works for the NBA and reality TV doesn’t work for MLB. But Manfred’s at a point where he has to find a way — some way — to increase the league’s appeal.
While I’m a fan of the proposed format (I’m aware I’m in the extreme minority) for other reasons, I don’t think the increased drama is the right way to grow the game.
Be that as it may, Manfred isn’t totally insane to think it might be.
Nathan Ackerman is a sophomore writing about sports and sociopolitics. He is also an associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Courtside,” runs every Friday.