Sports Nut

Do-or-Die Baseball

The World Baseball Classic proves baseball seasons don’t have to be endless.

Roger Clemens pitches against Team South Africa
        Click on image to expand.
Roger Clemens pitches against Team South Africa

Is there anything more compelling than a single-elimination tournament? Think of the NFL playoffs. Or March Madness or the National Spelling Bee. Or, perhaps best of all, the Kumite in Bloodsport. (Kumite! Kumite!)

Soon, the World Baseball Classic will have a chance to join these hallowed ranks. Having completed two stages of round-robin competition (marked by some wild plays, some questionable umpiring, and some gargantuan David Ortiz homers), the tournament will switch into single-elimination mode. First there’s the semifinal round on Saturday, whittling four teams down to two. And then, on Monday night, the entire event will climax with a single championship game. Nine innings for all the marbles.

This is baseball’s version of the Final Four, and it will no doubt be enormously exciting. Yet many people will still complain, “This is silly! Baseball is way too unpredictable for a one-and-done format! For heaven’s sakes, Canada already beat the United States in a WBC game. You need at least a seven-game series to determine the better team! And even that’s not enough! A do-or-die seventh game is in itself a crap shoot! Waaaaaaaahhhhh!”

These people will have a point. But they should also shove it. 

It seems we’ve become stuck on this notion that baseball is all about small-percentage advantages played out over hundreds of at-bats—that the “best” player and the “best” team can be decided only once reams of data have been collected. It’s no coincidence that baseball is the flagship sport of the statistically obsessed. With its endless 162-game season, it provides something statisticians crave: a large sample size.

Some numerophilic baseball fans consider the MLB playoffs (where a team needs to compile a scant 11 wins to be named world champs) nothing more than a meaningless addendum to the regular season. They point to the powerhouse 2001 Seattle Mariners team, which set an all-time record with 116 regular-season wins … and then got whupped in the American League Championship Series by the lowly 95-win Yankees. Why, the statheads ask, should one bad week outweigh six months of brilliance? (Even Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane seems to dismiss the postseason. When Beane famously said, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs,” he meant that the genius of his regular-season strategy couldn’t possibly be expected to manifest in a measly five-game series.)

It’s true that baseball feels somewhat unsuited to the win-or-go-home format. The very best MLB teams—those that win 100 games—still end up losing 38 percent of the time. Compare this to an NFL team that goes 12-4 (a good but by no means great record), losing just 25 percent of its games. Even those record-setting 2001 Mariners lost a whopping 46 times, while the NFL-best 1972 Dolphins went undefeated.

This makes it seem like baseball is far less suited to a one-and-done format than is a sport like football—in other words, the better baseball team quite often loses. But is this difference inherent in the nature of baseball? Or is it a product of the way we’ve constructed things?

Here’s a thought experiment: What if baseball, like football, played one game a week for a 16-week season? The team’s ace pitcher could now start every game. The best positional players would never get a day off. The intensity and focus would never wane (as they necessarily do in the midst of six games in six days in two cities).

In these circumstances, the best baseball teams might well go 12-4. Or even 14-2. And we might be less apt to consider baseball a game of chancy vicissitudes and random luck. The big upsets (such as that Canada win) would not be chalked up to the baseball’s nutty nature, but instead would be recognized for what they are: one team outplaying another on a given day.

I’m not arguing that we should change the existing MLB format. I think it’s great that baseball has its own leisurely pace, radically different from the other major sports. I love the unabashed, low-ambition laziness of a day game in July, when the players seem to be putting out a 75 percent effort. But it’s also fun to imagine an alternate universe in which every game is do-or-die.

I don’t have to work all that hard to imagine it. A couple of years ago, I went to Osaka to attend Japan’s Koshien tournament—the high-school baseball competition that each year transfixes the entire nation for a few breathless weeks (not unlike March Madness here). Every day the tournament saw another nail-gnasher of a game. The tension involved in an extra-inning tilt, with both teams’ survival at stake, was nearly unbearable. One bad pitch could mean a ticket home. Winning teams would exult with relief. Losing teams would break down in tears, utterly drained by it all.

To put this in more familiar terms: Every game was like a seventh game. Which is why I’ll be tuning in this Monday night, hoping David Ortiz faces Roger Clemens, in extra innings, with the whole shebang on the line. Let’s throw the percentages out the window and just see what happens. Kumite! Kumite!