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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

October 3, 2010 at 12:17 PM

Baseball saved itself embarrassment with three-way tie rule change

As I write this, the Braves lead the Phillies 7-2 through six innings, setting up the distinct possibility of the first three-way tie in baseball history at the end of the day. If the Braves hold on, and the Padres beat the Giants today, all three teams would have records of 91-71. The Giants and Padres would be tied for the NL West lead, while both would be tied with NL East runnerup Atlanta for the National League’s wild-card berth.

The solution is sensible: The Padres and Giants would play at San Diego on Monday to determine the NL West champion. The loser would play at Atlanta on Tuesday for the wild-card berth.

It’s hard to imagine any other process of breaking the three-way tie, but believe it or not, until 2003, baseball had a very different, and incredibly misguided, system in place. It never came into play, so few people were aware of it, but the Mariners came very close on two occasions of being potentially victimized by the system.

Basically, what would have happened back then is that the two teams that tied for the division lead would have had a one-game playoff, just as is the case now. So far, so good. But since such playoffs are considered regular-season games (the statistics all count toward the regular season), the loser of that game would then have a worse winning percentage than the third team in the three-way tie — the one that finished in second place.

And somehow, the powers-that-be determined that the loser of the playoff game would therefore be knocked out of the post-season, without having a chance to play another game, and the team that didn’t even have to play an extra game would be awarded the wild-card berth.

This nearly affected the Mariners in 1995, when the M’s, Angels and Yankees had a chance to finish with the same record. Instead, just the Angels and M’s did, and they had a one-game, winner-take-all playoff at the Kingdome. It nearly happened to Seattle again in 2000, when the Mariners, A’s and Indians went down to the wire with the same possibility. It didn’t happen then, either — but it could have. Finally, wiser heads prevailed and the rule was changed prior to the 2003 season.

Here is the column I wrote about the situation on Sept. 24, 2000. Can you imagine the howls of protest from San Diego or San Francisco if this system still existed today?:

The odds say it won’t happen. You know that commissioner Bud Selig and his henchmen are praying it won’t happen.

But it could happen – the Mariners, Athletics and Cleveland Indians finishing in a three-way tie in the American League standings for the league’s final two playoff spots. In this scenario, the Mariners and A’s finish in a dead heat in the AL West with the same record as Cleveland, runner-up in the AL Central.

And if it works out that way (just one game separated the three teams after yesterday’s play), wait for the howls of outrage and indignation from fans in Seattle and Oakland when they find out baseball’s rules for settling that contingency.

The Mariners and A’s would square off in a one-game playoff for the American League West title, which a coin flip has already determined would take place at Safeco Field. The winner would advance to the playoffs. No problem there. But the loser, rather than then playing the Indians for the wild-card berth, would be done. Eliminated. Finito.

That’s right: Cleveland, without having to break a sweat, would be rewarded for its second-place finish by getting an automatic berth into the playoffs as the wild-card team. It goes against every tenet of sports but one: the tiebreaking rules drawn up by major-league baseball.

What is the justification? In the annals of baseball, sudden-death playoff games have always been regarded as regular-season games. Thus, the loser of the Oakland-Seattle elimination game would have a lower winning percentage than Cleveland, and finish one-half game behind. Voila. Cleveland is in.

Never mind that one team would play 162 games, the other 163. Never mind that when the determination was made to count tiebreaking games in the regular-season standings, there was no such thing as wild cards.

Does the scenario sound vaguely familiar? It should. In 1995, when the Mariners and Angels battled down the stretch, they very nearly had that precise situation, with the Yankees in line to get the free ride into the playoffs as the wild-card team if there was a three-way tie. The M’s and Angels indeed tied, as we all know, but the Yankees wound up with one more victory in the regular season.

But it came even closer to happening last year, when the Reds, Astros and Mets went into the 162nd game with a chance to finish in a three-way tie. By this ridiculous rule, the Mets – who wound up 6 1/2 games behind the Braves in the NL East – would have been in the playoffs as the wild card, while the Astros and Reds, as co-champions of the NL Central, would have had a loser-out playoff game.

Again, the worst case was avoided when Houston beat out Cincinnati for the NL Central title by a game on the last day. The Reds and Mets wound up playing off for the wild card, with New York advancing.

“It was ridiculous the way it was last year,” Houston General Manager Gerry Hunsicker said. “I was livid when I found that out. It makes no sense. Even the people from the commissioner’s office agreed that when the rule was put into effect, this is a situation no one thought of. What you’re doing is penalizing a team tied for the division championship, and letting the wild-card team sit there and have a free go.”

Major-league general managers were so disturbed by this tiebreaking procedure that they unanimously approved recommendation of a change at their annual meetings last February. Their solution was simple, yet effective: if two division co-champions are tied with a third team for the wild card, the loser of the playoff for the division title would meet the wild-card contender in another one-game playoff, loser out.

“Not anyone in the room disagreed,” Hunsicker said. “I was under the impression it would be changed for this year.”

But it never was. Such a rule change would have to be approved both by ownership and the players association, and according to a major-league spokesman it never got past the union. Gene Orza, the union’s associate general counsel, didn’t return a call, but he told ESPN that while he understood the GMs’ sentiments, their proposal had downsides involving the amount of time such a round-robin playoff would take.

Apparently, the union and ownership are in rare lockstep on this one. With the World Series already potentially ending on Oct. 31, they don’t want to tack on any more days. With the A’s already facing a makeup game in Tampa Bay on Oct. 2, a three-way playoff would push back the opening of the division series to Oct. 5, two days later than planned.

That, in turn, would wreak havoc with the carefully laid plans of the television networks, whose millions fuel both the owners’ profit margin and the players’ income.

“It’s a sad state of affairs if you play 162 games and don’t get it right because of one extra day for TV,” Hunsicker said. “It’s pretty sad if that happens.”

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