Before I tell you about our big idea - "our" meaning Billy Beane and me - let's start with the inspiration. A week or so ago, my wife Margo asked a sports question. Margo used to be a pretty big sports fan, but that was before the PTA took up 98.9 percent of her time, so now she will emerge every month or two after fighting to the death with another weekly newsletter to ask something like, "So, who won the Final Four?" or "Whatever happened to Tim Tebow?"
This time, though, her question was international.
"So," she asked, "when do the Premier League soccer playoffs begin?"
The question came up in actual conversation - it wasn't just some crazy out of the blue thing, we were discussing how cool it would be to spend some time in England learning about the Premier League - but the point was her reaction when I told her that the Premier League doesn't have playoffs. She did not seem able to grasp the concept.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"They don't have playoffs. They never have."
"So," she asked, "how do they pick a winner?"
"Well, the team with the best record at the end of the season is the champion."
Let's be honest: Most Americans do not want to do that. We are a playoff nation. We, as Americans, tend to love playoffs. We can't get enough of them. We want tournaments expanded. We want wildcards added. We want five-game series stretched to seven. We want 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament rather than 64 even though it makes absolutely no sense*. People have been fighting harder for a college football playoff than pretty much any pressing issue in American life.
*And then the NCAA calls those play-in games the "first round," which is just ludicrous and stupid though, admittedly, probably not in the top five "ludicrous and stupid" things the NCAA does.
Lots of people have written and talked about the difference in character and expectation between, say, English sports fans and American sports fans. The brilliant Bill Bryson, an American son of a sportswriter who has lived most of his adult life in England, once wrote about how Americans and English folks have different expectations when they go to the pharmacy to get medicine.
"(T)he British don't expect over-the-counter drugs to change their lives," Bryson wrote, "whereas we Americans will settle for nothing less. . You only have to watch any television channel for a few minutes, flip through a magazine, or stroll along the groaning shelf of any drugstore to realize that people in this country expect to feel more or less perfect all the time. Even our household shampoo, I notice, promises to `change the way you feel.'"
Well, we can embrace that. We want our meals supersized, our Powerade with advanced electrolytes, our Tylenol Maximum Strength, and our games do or die. Playoffs speak to us. They are not everyday games. They are extraordinary. They are pressure packed. They are television extravaganzas. They are important, hugely important, draped with Roman numerals. They give us heroes and goats, the thrills and the agonies in Costco-sized packages.
In the Premier League, meanwhile, everyone has pretty well known that Manchester United is going to win the league for roughly two months. There's no drama. There are no second chances. But that fits what people expect. In England, they would no sooner add playoffs to the end of the Premier League season than give you free Diet Coke refills in restaurants. The lack of playoffs isn't just a feature of the Premier League . it's at the very HEART of the Premier League. The best team wins the championship. The worst teams are relegated to the Football League Championship, sort of the Class AAA of British soccer.
In England, soccer mirrors life. It's the day-to-day excellence that marks greatness, not a three or four-week run to glory.
Well, I think we should bring some of that spirit to America . especially to baseball. I mean football is geared for the short season - 16 games, an intense playoffs, a Super Bowl, that's why it's the biggest thing in America. But they play 162 games in baseball. One hundred sixty two. I mean, seriously, that's a lot of baseball games. No other sport plays so many.
That's more than enough game to determine who are the best teams in baseball. I mean, hey, I like all the playoffs too - more baseball is more baseball - but they feel cheap and gimmicky. They feel like you compete in a triathlon, and then, when everyone is finished, the Top 16 have a chili eating contest to determine the real champion.
It feels like SOMETHING could be done here. I'm not saying that they should get rid of the playoffs, but there should be some way to bring back some power and authority to the baseball regular season. I just needed an ally. And I knew exactly where to find one.
"Yeah, I think you and I are probably of the same mindset on this," said Billy Beane, Oakland A's general manager and real life version of the Brad Pitt "Moneyball" character.
OK, yeah, that was kind of an obvious ploy going to Billy Beane. For one thing, everyone knows he's an uber-fan of European soccer, particularly the Premier League. And everyone also knows he's been CRUSHED by the playoffs more than anyone in baseball the last 15 or so years. Six times since 2000, the A's have qualified for the playoffs - six times they have lost. Five of those they lost in a heartbreaking Game 5 of the Division Series. The sixth time, they were swept by Detroit in the ALCS.
Beane has famously said that his "s--- doesn't work in the playoffs," and he is very, very clear to not make excuses when I ask him questions about the playoffs vs. the regular season. This is how baseball picks their champions, and it's his job and Oakland's job to win in October.
But he does believe - and I believe, too - that the baseball playoffs are a crapshoot. They are what Beane poetically calls "a gauntlet of randomness." Every now and again there's a team that's so good - say the legendary 1998 Yankees or the amazing 2009 Yankees - that nothing can derail them, not randomness, not bad luck, not a short series, nothing. But that's a rare, rare team. Going all the way back to the 1990 season, those two Yankees teams are the ONLY two teams that had the best record in baseball and won the World Series.*
*The 2007 World Champion Boston Red Sox tied the Cleveland Indians for the best record.
"The playoffs are a great thing for our sport - I want to make that clear. But let's call it what it is: we allow small sample sizes and random events to determine the champion. That's how it is in baseball."
But does it HAVE to be that way? Isn't there a way to get the thrills of the playoffs but also the justice of a champion chosen through a long season with a thousand, slumps and streaks, challenges and triumphs?
"Well," Billy said, "there is one thing you're forgetting about European football. They really have the best of both worlds. They don't have a playoff in the Premier League, but they do have the Champions League ."
Oh yeah. The UEFA Champions League. That is a huge tournament that features club teams from more than 50 countries all over Europe. They play in a fairly complicated tournament that eventually leads to a 16-team knockout round like the NCAA's Sweet 16. So, yeah, soccer fans do get their playoff thrills and their valid regular season. They get the excitement of a consequential and important regular season, but they also get a wild and thrilling playoff.
"Hey, wait a minute," I said to Beane. "What if ."
"I think we're thinking the same thing," Billy Beane said before I finished.
He was right: We both had the same idea: Baseball can have the best of both worlds too. The playoffs can remain the playoffs - it's still the World Series, and you can make it as wide open as you like. But in the meantime, what if there was a trophy given and a serious distinction to the teams in each league with the best record.
What if, for instance, we called THEM the "pennant winners?" That's how it was until 1969, you know, the team with the best team in each division was said to have "won the pennant." Now, we tend to call the team that snakes through each league playoff as the pennant winner, but I think that should be changed. Getting to the World Series is reward enough. The "pennant" should go to the team with the best record in each league.
Pennant winners over the last few years:
2012 pennant winners: New York and Washington
2011 pennant winners: New York and Philadelphia
2010 pennant winners: Tampa Bay and Philadelphia
2009 pennant winners: New York and Los Angeles Dodgers
2008 pennant winners: Los Angeles Angels and Chicago Cubs*
*The Cubs win the pennant!
This could be a really good thing. Of course, it has to be taken seriously. If two teams tie for the pennant, for instance, they should play a one-game playoff. The season should be viewed as its own thing, starts around the first of April, ends at the end of September. That's it.
Now, if I had my way, the pennant winners would also get something special in the playoffs - extra home field advantage or something - but that's playoff talk again. In the end, sure, of course, the World Series will still matter a lot more because it has history behind it and because, yes, we love our playoffs. But I'd love to see the 162-game champion recognized in a bigger way. I'd love to see a 2012 pennant flag waving in Washington right now.
"You know what," Billy Beane said, "you and I might be the only ones who feel that way."
"Yeah," I said, then added, "Well, my wife too."