Bud Selig is arguably the most transformative figure in the history of Major League Baseball. Under his watch, we’ve seen more changes to the way the game is played and consumed than at any other time in the sport's history. Look, for instance, at the current debate over his proposed changes to MLB’s playoff structure—which is considered an inevitability, despite not being announced as expected on Thursday, and probably not being announced today, either. [UPDATE: Or not, as Ken Rosenthal reported on Twitter that the change is now official] Or rather, at the decided lack of a debate. Anyway, "look" is clearly the word, here, since Selig, per his usual, hasn't left room for much else in terms of engagement.
Twenty years ago, adding a play-in game at the end of the regular season would have sent the game’s gatekeepers into fits of great weeping and gnashing of teeth. In the Bud Selig era, we hear nary a peep. This could simply be a reflection of our new comfort with this sort of thing—as a culture, we've all developed pretty good sea legs where sea changes are concerned. It could be because one more game and one more playoff team is not, in the grand scheme of things or otherwise, the biggest deal in the world. But mostly it seems a reflection of the fact that Selig, fusty quasi-anarchist that he is, has already done so much to change the game that things like this barely register.
For all that he’s done to alter the sport, it doesn’t seem right call Selig a revolutionary on the level of a Branch Rickey, or a visionary like Bill Veeck. He seems much more like his erstwhile BFF George Steinbrenner: someone who has come to be revered in certain circles solely for making an awful lot of money for the already rich. The proposed playoff expansion is another example of that.
MLB’s new double wild card/play-in game is ostensibly meant to correct the “flaw” of the old wild card structure—that there is no real incentive to win one’s division. The Yankees exposed this pitfall in 2010 when they openly eschewed a division title—and the series against the powerful Rangers that went with it—in favor of a wild card spot and a more favorable match-up versus the Twins. There is also the fact that Wild Card teams have more or less dominated the postseason over the last 17 years—11 of the 34 teams to make the World Series over that stretch started as wild card teams, which is doubly jarring given that each league has three division champs for every one wild card. The system works—it's baseball, and so baseball fans generally like it—but not exactly as designed.
Of course, the new playoff structure has its own potential for similar gamesmanship, as would any alternative; it might slow down the wild card teams, too, by requiring them to use their aces in the new play-in game. But there is no perfect system, nor is perfecting the playoffs even the point of this change. It’s telling that whenever he discusses the matter, Selig always makes sure to note how much the teams request it. “Clubs really want it,” he said back in January. “I don't think I've ever seen an issue that the clubs want more than to have the extra wild card this year.”
When Selig says “clubs,” he means the owners thereof, all of whom stand to benefit from a play-in game and the additional revenue attended thereto. Selig has never shed his owner’s mentality, and every change under his watch as commissioner—divisional realignment, overseeing several new stadium land grabs, starving and relocating the Montreal Expos—has been allowed for the primary purpose of lining owners’ pocketbooks.
So it is with the additional wild card slot. MLB saw three seasons in a row end with one-game playoffs (2007-2009) and 2011’s playoff teams were not determined until the very last minutes of the season. Taking notice of the buzz—and ratings—this generated, Selig seeks to institutionalize the phenomenon. It’s almost akin to mandating that each game end on an unassisted triple play. Something exceptionally rare and thrilling will become a legislated part of baseball’s everyday landscape.
This isn’t to fault Selig, necessarily—if he didn’t grow the game’s revenues, he’d be a bad commissioner. However, it does explain the one change he remains reluctant to make: instant replay. The new wild card will become a reality mere months after the subject was first broached; in contrast, four years after being instituted on a trial basis, instant replay remains limited exclusively to home run reviews. Which are, as any baseball fan knows, sacred unto actual magic.
That the man who has dramatically altered baseball in countless ways suddenly becomes a traditionalist whenever instant replay is mentioned is hard to explain through anything but his owner’s mentality. His other innovations have the immediate, tangible benefit of increased revenue, but instant replay has none. In fact, it would cost the league money to equip every stadium with extra cameras and review booths and training the umpires to use them.
There are long-term benefits to instant replay, and they're obvious. The biggest one is that it makes baseball more palatable to a generation of fans who can’t fathom a sport without a mechanism to correct its mistakes. When a fan with a smartphone can see things an umpire can't, something is so clearly off as to be impossible to miss. But until it becomes possible to sufficiently monetize instant replay—until "the clubs" start calling for it—it seems likely that we'll keep on missing it. Putting the success of the game above ownership's bottom lines would be something a legitimately forward-thinking commissioner would do. Baseball doesn't have one of those.