To juice up playoffs, regular season needs a squeeze


Eventually, common sense has to prevail in baseball's postseason. The three-of-five Division Series inevitably will be expanded to four-of-seven, at which time October will no longer be able to contain the three-tiered playoff format. Something has got to give.

That something should be the length of the regular season, which should be reduced slightly -- say, back to the pre-expansion era total of 154 -- to absorb the extra playoff games and allow the postseason to begin in the final week of September.

It's a tough sell, of course. Major-league clubs are understandably hesitant to reduce product at a time when costs seem to be out of control. The Major League Baseball Players Association also would be reluctant to do anything that might decrease player salaries. Both concerns are largely unfounded.

Baseball, like any other business, is governed largely by supply and demand, so the loss of a handful of games likely would cause attendance to increase proportionately on a per-game basis -- except in those rare locales where virtually every ticket is sold in advance.

If that's not the case, the owners can always raise ticket and concession prices to make up the difference, something they have never been particularly ashamed to do.

The upside: The players would be fresher for the postseason. The schedule would have enough air to give reasonable accommodation to the teams that are forced into a regular-season playoff. The weather might even be a little more cooperative.

The downside: The sport's statistical framework would be disturbed. The single-season home run record that Mark McGwire set last year would become unbreakable -- if it isn't already. The balance between interleague play and divisional competition would become a more complicated proposition. Revenue could be adversely affected for some wealthy franchises.

It would be worth it.

The shorter season also would allow for extra days off during the regular season, which could have an impact on the level of physical stress on everyday players and perhaps even lead to a decrease in fatigue-related injuries.

Of course, it's not going to happen. Baseball owners have pulled out all the stops to increase revenue over the past few years. It's unlikely they would do something that might nudge the economics of the game even slightly in the opposite direction.

It's all about more, even though baseball might be better off with less.

A modest proposal

Orioles owner Peter Angelos may be too stubborn to consider it, but he should think seriously about selling the team and saving what's left of his national reputation. It would be the best thing for himself, his family and the Orioles franchise.

Angelos, who gained the respect of baseball players and fans for standing up to his fellow owners during baseball's last labor disaster, has traded his reputation as a free-thinking maverick for the image of a petulant child -- attacking everyone who disagrees with him and insisting on the rightness of his position no matter how much evidence exists to the contrary.

The decision to fire general manager Frank Wren without giving him a fair opportunity to do the job was just the latest in a long series of organizational embarrassments that have turned a once-respected franchise into the laughingstock of the industry. Even George Steinbrenner would have blushed after this one.

Don't misunderstand. Angelos did right by Baltimore when he saved the team from out-of-town ownership. He has done many other good works and should be remembered for all of them.

He just shouldn't own a baseball team anymore.

The only answer

Since the word is out on the Orioles, the only reasonable course of action might be to put player personnel director Syd Thrift in charge of the baseball operation. It appears that he's pulling a lot of the strings anyway.

Thrift has been at Angelos' side all season, clearly positioning himself between the owner and Wren. It apparently was during the recent Olympic advisory trip to Greece that Angelos decided to dismiss Wren along with manager Ray Miller. Thrift was on that trip.

Now that Angelos has removed all pretense about who will make all of the significant decisions affecting the club, why not appoint Thrift caretaker general manager and put him in charge of the continuing front office education of John and Lou Angelos?

If nothing else, it would save the club the trouble of conducting another tortured general manager search and allow Angelos and his sons to establish a single vision for the organization.

That isn't going to happen, of course, because bosses like Angelos always have to have someone else to blame when things go wrong.

Right stuff, wrong time

In case you were wondering if it is possible to make front office changes without squandering the dignity of the organization, the proof is in Chicago, where Jim Riggleman was fired as Cubs manager last week.

Not only did Riggleman take his dismissal with amazing grace, but general manager Ed Lynch was able to make the managerial change without any attempt to diminish Riggleman's character or reputation.

"It's the nature of the game," Riggleman told reporters. "It's about winning and the prospects for winning as you look forward. Everyone involved felt change was needed, and maybe they're right. I just feel bad for my coaches. Some of those are not going to be back. I'm very concerned about them. They worked so hard and were so loyal. I'm going down with them. That's one silver lining, that we'll walk out together."

Lynch took his share of responsibility for the demise of the Cubs, who reached the playoffs last year only to go into a steep decline this summer and finish in the National League Central cellar.

"Is major-league baseball fair?" Lynch said. "Do they deserve to be the fall people, the focus of everything that has gone wrong with the organization? Obviously not. Certainly I'm going to be criticized. A lot of it's justified."

Staying put

Apparently, you won't hear Philadelphia Phillies ace Curt Schilling's name in a lot of winter trade rumors. He's so excited about the prospect of the club increasing its payroll that he's predicting that the still-youthful Phillies will make a strong run at the postseason next year.

"I think a lot of things have to go wrong for us not to contend," Schilling said recently. "The bottom line is next year we should be contending for the title for this division and this league, based on what we have here and what we're going to do this winter."

It could happen. The Phillies were surprisingly competitive well into the second half of the season, and general manager Ed Wade has been given the go-ahead to increase the payroll significantly this winter. The club hopes to acquire a front-line starting pitcher to join Schilling in the rotation -- perhaps the Los Angeles Dodgers' Ismael Valdes, who may be available entering his last year before free-agent eligibility.

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