About a decade ago, one of the general managers I covered, Gord Ash, suggested that a baseball team finding success was far more difficult than that of a hockey club. The National Hockey League allows about half of its teams to make the post-season, compared to baseball, where only eight of 30 do.
The point being made by the GM back then was that the local hockey team could have a so-so season and fans would still consider the year a success if they won a few playoff games before bowing out. Not so for the local baseball club, the Blue Jays, which had won two World Series in 1992-93, but was considered a failure every year after that because it kept failing to qualify for the post-season.
And some of those years were pretty good, including an 88-win season in 1998 and subsequent winning years in 1999 and 2000. But alas, because of baseball’s playoff structure, fans only viewed all of those years as third-place finishes in a sport that doesn’t care about anything other than first place or a wild card berth.
This weekend, I came to realize we’re living through the exact same situation in Seattle present-day. Only now, it involves the Seahawks football team putting together a surprising post-season run after a regular season that any fair observer would have to call dismal. Forget about any NFC West “title”. The Seahawks were a few bad snaps away from a three-win season.
But now, they live on. After one of the bigger playoff upsets of the past 20 years, the Hawks are now just one more win over Chicago — a team they’ve already beaten on the road this year — from possibly playing host to the NFC title game. So, no matter how bad the regular season went, it’s tough not to look at what’s happened and view it as a success.
Don’t get me wrong: much of this is a fluke. If the Hawks look at their year, figure they were truly an 11-5, or 12-4, second-round playoff team and carry that attitude into the winter without big changes, they are probably doomed to crash back to earth next year. But from a public relations and marketing perspective — which matters big-time in pro sports — this late flourish makes the entire year a success.
And oh how the Mariners must be dreaming of what could have been.
Because the truth is, as bad as the M’s 101-loss season was last year and in 2008, it’s not that far off from what the Hawks would have lived through had they finished 3-13 the way they might have had a few footballs not bounced their way. More importantly, the 88-win season by the Mariners in 2007 and the 85-win job in 2009 might be viewed in a far different historical context by local fans had there been some type of post-season attached.
Instead, the M’s get to read daily laments by fans on this blog and others about how the team’s management stinks and the franchise is an utter failure. Hey, I’ll admit it. I’m one of the first to shrug off the 2009 season as merely a third-place finish that was feel-good but nothing to hang your hat on.
But I’ll tell you what. What we’re seeing with the Seahawks right now has gotten me to rethink my position about expanding the MLB playoff system.
Photo Credit: AP
When MLB commissioner Bud Selig first proposed an extra playoff tier, I was put off. I figured the baseball playoffs are special and the reason is because of its exclusivity. The wild-card format cut into that a bit, but eight teams in 30 is still pretty rare.
But as much fun as I have watching that rarity every year on TV in other cities, I do think it would be nice to have some chance of seeing it up close and personal more than once every decade or so.
As a 12-year-old in Montreal, I got to see the Expos make their one and only playoff appearance in franchise history back in 1981. The city was alive back then, as it was in 1994 until MLB pulled the plug on the season and began a concerted effort to kill off the decades-old, history-laden (think Jackie Robinson) interest fans there once had in professional baseball.
A playoff appearance for the Expos in 1994 might have generated enough interest for taxpayers to bite the bullet and build another subsidized ballpark (they already had a billion-dollar colossus in the Olympic Stadium still on their tab) that would have kept the team in that city. But no playoffs that year and no franchise a decade later after numerous comical attempts by MLB and its puppet ownership to stage a case for relocating to Washington, D.C.
Seattle is in a different situation than Montreal. But baseball also feels more precarious in the Emerald City than it’s been in quite some time. Season ticket sales are down and the Mariners appear out of payroll cash and unable to make any more upgrades beyond what they have without some truly creative thinking. The team has decided to absorb some hefty financial losses this year in order to avoid cutting payroll from where it was last season, but the “hope” teams need to sell their fans on to stay interested still appears to be years away.
But how different, I wonder, would the outlook for this franchise be had the Mariners made the playoffs in 2007 and 2009? Would the team be viewed through the same eyes it is currently being seen?
Or would fans merely shrug off last year and this coming one as part of needed rebuilding after a three-year stretch in which the M’s went to the post-season twice?
This isn’t merely a philosophical issue. It’s a hard, economic one.
The Mariners are in trouble, folks. They might not have one foot out the door. And yes, they did turn a profit a year ago. Yes, they have very wealthy owners. Yes, those owners got a ballpark built by taxpayers and continue to reap the benefits. But it’s not our money to spend, fair or unfair, and those owners have drawn a line as to how many losses they’ll be willing to absorb. That’s their call to make. They didn’t get rich by throwing their money away.
So, if we want baseball in this city, those are the rules that have been set. And many fans are choosing to voice their displeasure by not buying tickets. That’s their call to make as well. I’m not going to tell you it’s the right or wrong move. How you spend your discretionary entertainment dollars is your own business.
But it’s not a business model that’s going to bring baseball success here. It’s the start of a downward spiral that, if not checked somehow in the next year or two, can begin to spin out of anyone’s control.
So, it will be interesting to see how the Mariners work their way out of the corner they appear to have painted themselves into. But I can’t help but wonder how things might be now had they been afforded the same luxury — the same “second chance, if you will — that the Seahawks are benefitting from.
Because if an extra AL wild-card spot had been around in 2007, the Mariners and Detroit Tigers would have had a one-game playoff to determine which of them advanced to the post-season.
The 2009 Mariners would have battled the Rangers and Tigers for the last wild-card spot right up to the final week of season. Who knows how many more games the M’s might have won if there was something at-stake?
So, yeah, the added playoff team dilutes the post-season. It makes the games you watch seem a little less special.
But if the upside is that it helps turn around a franchise like the Mariners, I’m probably going to change my stance on it and be all for it.
Because it’s not the team ownership you root for in a situation like this. Just like it’s not Paul Allen the Seahawk fans are going crazy over this morning. Team owners will stay rich and continue to be made wealthier by tax money. That’s a given in just about any professional sport, like it or not. Somebody has to foot the big bucks up front and it’s never going to be you or me.
But you cheer for the uniform. You cheer for the city. Especially come playoff time.
And that helps a city’s psychology. Helps make the lives of the people who live there a little more interesting, once they’re already being dinged for the tax dollars needed to keep pro teams alive. It’s not like we’re being given the option to pour those dollars into public schools. The money has already been allocated and spent. Might as well get some satisfaction out of it, you know?
And so, if adding a playoff team in each baseball league can help make Seattle a better, happier place, I’m all for it.
You’ve got to admit, there’s been a bit more buzz around here than usual because of the Seahawks. It would be nice if it happened a little more often.