The MLB Playoffs: Who Cares What FOX Wants?

by Bryan

One of my pet peeves kicks into high gear every October with the baseball playoffs, which invariably pit a few teams from large markets like New York, Boston and Los Angeles versus teams from smaller markets like Minnesota, Oakland and St. Louis. The conversation will go something like this:

ME: “Who do you think is going to make the World Series?”

YOU: “Well, FOX wants Yankees/Dodgers, I’m sure.”

I’m not sure there’s ever been a less interesting line of logic than this, but it seems to have invaded our national sports-watching culture. We’re constantly intrigued by what series will get the highest ratings, to the point that we’ve substituted this type of thinking for our own. I’m not saying that these observations are wrong; to say that FOX (yes, the network spells its name in all CAPITAL LETTERS, just to make the point) would prefer higher ratings to lower ones is probably not going to far out on a limb. It’s the implication that bothers me. If you’re concerned enough about what the networks want to speak it aloud, you probably want it too, and there’s a strong chance you won’t watch a Twins/Cardinals game.

I’m not telling you what to watch. But as Jerry Seinfeld famously said, we’re rooting for laundry out there. What does it matter where that laundry is washed and folded?

Recently, there’s been an attack on subjective baseball terminology by the more statistically religious members of baseball’s enormous fanbase. Words like “clutch” and “heart” should not be applied, they say, because they cannot be measured. Baseball analysts should stick with what is known, like batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. These things exist, they say. These measurements provide the framework for the game that is going to be played, and they are just as quantifiable as the size of cities.

The bigger the city, of course, the bigger the television market. The bigger the market, the more money the team has coming in. The more money the team has coming in, the better the players they’re able to sign. If you spend your money well, every extra half-million people probably nets you at least one more win a year. In markets like New York and L.A., those wins will add up quickly.

If the stat guys are right (and by and large, I believe they are), the playing field is fundamentally unfair. How is a team like the Cleveland Indians supposed to compete year in and year out? The last two A.L. Cy Young winners came from the Tribe, and this year they’ll both start game one of the Championship Series—CC Sabathia for the Yankees, Cliff Lee for the Phillies. They had to leave Cleveland because the Indians could no longer afford them.

If the stat guys are wrong, then who cares what FOX would ever want? If the game was based on as-yet ummeasurable quantities, the best series—from a pure baseball perspective—would include teams who were the best at… well, whatever. But certainly not just almanac-busting.

The truth is, baseball follows the stats on a macro level, but not a micro level, which is why anything can happen in the playoffs, and why the Yankees haven’t won in nearly a decade. The stat guys call this “luck”—I think it’s something more akin to the magic of the game. Things happen in October that defy logic, reason and stats, but I’m not willing to call it a fluke. There’s one goal every year: to win the World Series. FOX may want the teams from the biggest markets, but you should want the ones with the winners. Baseball is hard enough that you should stand in awe of anyone who makes it. And most importantly, you should watch.