Whether baseball expands playoffs or not, Cardinals chairman advocates for shrinking regular season to 154 games

©St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JUPITER, Fla. — A proposal to expand Major League Baseball’s postseason to a larger field of teams and introduce some reality-TV twists to the selection process has been kicked around within owners meetings, and regardless of where those discussions go Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. has an idea for the schedule.

The regular season should be shorter.

“I personally am in favor of a shorter season regardless of what the playoff structure is,” DeWitt said, watching his team go through spring training drills. “I think 162 games is a lot of games. I’m an advocate for going back to 154. It’s a grind. There’s a lot of travel. So, I’m probably in the minority of that but when I have an opportunity to speak up about it, I do speak up about it. I prefer a shorter schedule.”

For decades, baseball had a 154-game schedule, but when expansion arrived in the 1960s, the schedule felt it, too. The National League went to a 162-game schedule for the 1962 season. The American League shifted to a 162-game schedule a year earlier, and it was during the 1961 season that Roger Maris hit 61 home runs and was affixed with an asterisk for years because of the increase from 154 games to 162.

Changes galore are on the table and being discussed as the expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement nears, after 2021. There is growing acceptance from NL owners like DeWitt for the addition of the designated hitter, if not universally then for more games. There is discussion about scrapping the way interleague play is handled and going to a schedule where every team plays every team each season, or close to it. Driving those discussions are experiences like the one the Cardinals had where Mike Trout, the best player in the game, did not appear in St. Louis with the Angels until last season, his ninth in the majors.

Major League Baseball has also sought overseas trips for its teams — the Cardinals are headed to London this June to face the Cubs — and the taxing travel has added to the wear and tear on teams.

DeWitt brought that up as a leading reason to slash the schedule down to the 154 games that the National League had in Stan Musial’s day and before.

Another reason would be the expanded playoffs.

Those games would fill that week deleted from the regular season, and that would allow an expanded playoff without baseball starting in mid-March or reaching into November.

“There was a presentation at an MLB meeting, and everybody was very enthusiastic,” DeWitt said. “Maybe not about every last element of it, but in general, about the possibilities that it would bring. We walked out and it was, ‘Wow, this looks pretty interesting.’”

One plan would expand the playoffs from 10 to 14 team. As first reported by The New York Post, baseball would ditch the wild-card game and instead shift to a best-of-three first round. The two teams with the best record in each league would get a first-round bye. All games in the best-of-three series would be played at the higher-seeded team’s ballpark. There would be four wild-card teams for each league and three division winners. The division winner that slipped into the first round would be able to pick its opponent — in a made-for-TV reveal.

The format would allow for a team with a losing record in the regular season to have a crack at winning the World Series, though the higher seeds would have built-in advantages.

The division round and championship rounds would remain the same.

This format is being discussed, not adopted, though it does fit how baseball has accelerated the addition of teams to the playoffs. In 1969, the leagues went from the pennant winners advancing to the World Series to a four-team postseason. That number doubled to eight teams making the playoffs in 1994, if there were playoffs in 1994. And in 2012, the Cardinals became the first NL team to win a wild-card playoff game when baseball expanded to 10 teams in the postseason.

That remains the fewest playoff teams of North America’s major pro sports.

“We’ve been underrepresented relative to the other sports in playoff participation,” DeWitt said. “And the best teams are going to have the biggest advantage, and they should. I don’t think it’s about to happen, but it’s worthy of discussion and thinking through, and what about if it means losing teams get in and should they really have an opportunity to win a championship?”

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©2020 St. Louis Post-Dispatch