Thursday, October 8, 2015

One and Done

The phrase "one and done" means different things to sports fans depending on the season and context. In the NCAA tournament one and done means that a loss in the tournament results in a team's elimination.  In the world of college basketball recruiting, one and done refers to outstanding players who compete for a college for one year and one year only, before leaving school (to whatever extent they were "in" school) to play professionally. Their college careers are one year, and done.

In the world of baseball, the wildcard playoff games--which concluded last night--one and done means that the four teams that are eligible to play for a championship by virtue of winning the wildcard berths, play a one game, winner-take-all contest to determine which team advances.

There are some baseball followers, especially those in New York and Pittsburgh this morning, who contend that one and done games in the baseball playoffs are cruel ways to end a season.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, for example, won 97 games during the regular season.  They had the third best record in all of baseball.  The Chicago Cubs won 98 games, the second best record in baseball.  However, because they played in a division that was home to the Cardinals, a team that won one hundred games, both the Cubs and Pirates had to play a one and done game last night. The Pirates lost, so they are done.

Is this fair?  Does it make sense that now there are eight teams left in the baseball tournament, none are the Pittsburgh Pirates, and of the remaining teams, six of the eight have records far inferior to the Pirates' record?

I might feel differently if I lived in Pittsburgh now or cheered for the Yankees--another one and done victim-albeit a victim with not nearly the stellar record of the Pirates.   However, my sense as a sports fan and commentator is that one and done in the baseball playoffs is fair and essential for the league.

Three years ago baseball had one wild card team per league.  The three division leaders in each league were automatically eligible to compete for the championship. A fourth team--a wild card--was eligible and that team was selected on the basis of the best record among teams that had not one its division.

So, there were four teams in each league competing.  The victor of one three out of five playoff series, would play the victor of another three out of five series, with the successful teams playing a four out of seven series to determine which team would represent the league and compete for the world series.

The problem with this format was that the Wild Card team--that had NOT won a division after 162 games--competed in the playoffs at essentially the same level as a team that had been victorious in its division.

The baseball regular season is a seven month competition to determine who can advance to play for a championship.  It must mean something to prevail within your division after seven months of competition. The reward for such success is that you do NOT have to play in a one and done game.  At the very least you compete in a three out of five series.

So the Pirates and Cubs were obliged to play one and done, because they could not, after seven months, overcome the Cardinals.  If a team wants to avoid the pressure of having to play a one and done series, the burden on them is to compete diligently all season long to ensure they win a division.

This is not to suggest that the wild card teams do not compete diligently. The Cubs, Pirates, Yankees, and Astros--this year's four wild card teams--did indeed play hard. But they did not win the division.  Baseball purists and those old enough to remember the Doors and Watergate, know that there was a time when no matter how stellar your season was, you did not advance to a championship series unless you won your league, let alone a division within your league.  Before 1969, only two teams advanced.  No wild cards, no division playoffs, just a world series.  Two teams out of twenty played for all the fruits of victory.  That is ten percent for those mathematically challenged. Now ten teams out of thirty are eligible. Thirty three percent for those who spaced out during arithmetic.  So, the Pirates and the Cubs and the Yankees and the Astros would not have gotten a whiff of post season play if not for the present format.

I like one and done. It rewards the teams that prevail during a long regular season and yet it still gives an opportunity to close pursuers.

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