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Monday, December 10 , 2018, 2:45 pm | Mostly Cloudy 62º


Max McCumber: Searching for Answers in the Playoffs

Right now it's April going on May, so the early rounds of hockey and basketball playoffs are in process. Since spots are ensured for 16 of 30 clubs in both the NBA and NHL, the do-or-die urgency one would expect from a postseason tournament takes awhile to kick in.

Max McCumber
Max McCumber

It provokes me to question the mere playoff concept in sports. How important are playoffs to determine which team is the most worthy champion and better than the rest? What connotations do they truly drum up about the sport? PLAYOFFS!?!?! That press conference outburst by football coach Jim Mora made me think.

No comment on hockey since I'm not as familiar with the game. I do understand, though, that to not qualify for the NBA playoffs, you have to be really atrocious. Think of the L.A. Clippers up until recently. Even teams with sub-.500 records have snuck in, as the Atlanta Hawks did this year. The bottom-seeded, eighth-place team in the conference upending the top one happens infrequently, but to allow such a possibility with over half the teams admitted defeats the purpose.

I find little historical variance in the teams that have reached the NBA Finals. Go from the juggernaut Boston Celtics of the 1960s and '70s, Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson and the Bad Boy Pistons in the '80s, the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets in the '90s, the L.A. Lakers and San Antonio Spurs in the 2000s all the way to LeBron James' Miami Heat these days. Ultimately, I am not sure if this is due to a flaw in the playoff structure or a competitive balance problem.

Broadcaster Bob Costas of NBC and the MLB Network, a huge inspiration to me as a baseball fan, is a noted critic of the Wild Card playoff format. While he argued that the hunt for October was better with only two division winners from each league, it's hard to justify penalizing a team for playing in the wrong division. In 1993, the Philadelphia Phillies qualified for postseason action but not the San Francisco Giants, even though the Giants won several more games and second most in all of baseball only to their division foe, the Atlanta Braves. At the same time, the Costas theory holds up in situations like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox jockeying for AL East supremacy circa 2003 and 2004 — when the runner-up can settle for the Wild Card, it lessens the incentive to finish first.

Major League Baseball now has not one but two Wild Card teams in the mix, that meet in a one game, winner-take-all showdown. In theory, it fixes what was broken by placing greater importance on first place than second, if the former gets to bypass the sudden death round. Whether or not it makes sense for the division also-rans to play a do-or-die set of innings if more than one game separates them from the regular season standings is debatable. The extra Wild Card spots have only been around for two years, though, so it's still early to pass judgment.

If you're a purist and deem only the top seeds in the American and National leagues worthy, you would have to go back over half a century — back to when only the original 16 franchises were around, none of them playing at home west of St. Louis, and back to when pitchers in the junior circuit had to bat every game because the designated hitter didn't exist yet. Russ Hodges' "Giants win the pennant" call was so significant because the pennant was all there was when Bobby Thompson hit the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" of 1951. The Wild Card, division and league championship series are products of expansion and were necessary evils to accommodate growth. No system is ideal.

At least to the owners and league execs, the playoffs are clearly synonymous with money. Games with more at stake than regular season affairs presumably sell more tickets. Billions of dollars are collected from the rights fees networks pay to air the playoffs. More merchandise gets sold when commemorative T-shirts, caps, posters, etc., go on the market after teams are crowned champions.

Beyond the opulence, the championship is integral to the identity of a franchise. To me, the Miracle Mets are just as evocative of 1969 as the moon landing and Woodstock. 1984 is as synonymous with George Orwell as it is to the dominant Detroit Tigers team managed by Sparky Anderson that won it all that year. In Boston, 1918 was a sore reminder, through all the heartbreak, of the last Red Sox title year — up until 2004, of course. Until last season in Pittsburgh, 1992 haunted the Pirates as their most recent playoff appearance and winning season. I was the same age as the Buccos' MVP outfielder Andrew McCutchen, only 6, back then.

For some, especially amateur squads, the playoffs are an opportunity to perform in a prestigious venue. Such was the case for the small-town high school basketball team Gene Hackman coached in Hoosiers, once they arrived at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Santa Barbara High girls' hoops team got far enough in the CIF playoffs this year to see action at an NBA arena in Sacramento.

For the fans, the playoffs are de facto holidays. They are the postseason party everyone clamors to be invited to. They are when the adrenaline rush kicks up a notch. When more rides on every last-second jump shot or ninth-inning go-ahead runner in scoring position. They are the ballet recital, opera or Broadway musical put on after countless dress rehearsals. When, for at least a moment, we can forget about any illogical premise behind the teams being there and just enjoy the show.

— Max McCumber is a Santa Barbara resident.

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