Let’s blow up these three bad ideas one by one:
1). The playoff process accurately determines the best team
There’s a whole lot of reason to doubt the first assumption. Since major league baseball added wild card teams in 1995, the team with the best regular-season record in baseball has only won the title three out of 21 times. We’ve seen a 116-win Mariners team fall in the 2001 ALCS to a Yankee team with 21 fewer regular season wins. We had an 83-win champion with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006. We had two wild cards make the World Series in 2014, both with less than 90 regular-season wins (SF Giants and KC Royals).
Major league baseball has only seen one repeat winner in 21 years since going to the six division format: the 1998-00 New York Yankees. Frankly, the playoffs have become a crap-shoot ever since the wild card came into play.
2). No other team improved enough to challenge the “champions”
This presumption looks pretty silly when you realize that the playoffs are a crap-shoot. If the 83-win Cardinals can beat the 95-win Tigers for the 2006 title, and the 85-win Twins take the 1987 World Series, fans have to believe that ANY playoff team could knock off a defending champion—even if last year’s champ gets back into the tournament.
Add in free-agency roster changes, age-related decline, and normal performance variance, and this belief becomes downright nonsensical.
3). Team “character”, and conforming to baseball’s cultural norms, are the keys to championship success
Here we brush up against the most toxic belief of American sports culture: that success on the playing field is due to good “character” or superior “moral fiber”.
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The fact is, we’d all LIKE it if “good guys” enjoyed an advantage over the “bad guys”. That means when the KC Royals, or another favorite team, disappoints us, we can scream at them without feeling bad about it. After all, if they were “hungry” or “devoted to winning” they’d meet our expectations, right? And, by giving the KC Royals our devotion as fans means we deserve their best effort in return. So if the team doesn’t win, they’re cheating us.
This set of beliefs turns baseball into a morality play where we heap honors on the most worthy teams, and players. I guess Yordano Ventura being able to throw 100 mph doesn’t matter. And Wade Davis‘ sick cutter has nothing to do with God-given gifts. No. Wade Davis racks up saves because he’s a better person than any other reliever in baseball, or any of the millions watching the broadcast around the world.
In short, by buying into the notion that character determines success or failure, we validate the results we see on the field—and the justice of the cultural pecking order that follows.
Next: Conflating On Field Results With Character Has Toxic Consequences