The Summer of ’81

As promised, a notorious example of using the fresh start technique to add interest to a professional sports problem. In the Major League Baseball season of 1981, the need to maintain interest in the season with a fresh start tempted tournament organizers to compromise all three of the maxims of tournament design.

A strike by the players resulted in the cancellation of about a third of the 1981 season. In order to recoup some of the revenue lost during the strike, when play resumed it was announced that there would be an additional round to the post-season playoffs, pitting the winner of the first half of the season against the winner of the second half. This arrangement threatened to compromise all three of the maxims.

Maxim 1: Maintain Balance

Since 1961 (or 1962 in the National league), the length of a Major League Baseball season has been fixed at 162 games. The original reason for that length is that it provided a nice balance in leagues with ten teams each: each played 18 games, nine home and nine away, against each of the other nine teams in the league.

As the number of teams has changed, the parameters of this giant round robin have been adjusted. In 1981, there were twelve teams in the National League, and fourteen in the American League. For national league teams, the 162 figure was reached by scheduling 18 games against the five teams in the same division, but only twelve against the six teams in the other division. In the American League, teams played 13 teams against division rivals, and twelve against the others. In either case, the balance was as nearly perfect as the awkward requirement to play exactly 162 games would allow.

But this balance went out the window with the strike. When play resumed after the strike in August, after two months with no games, each team simply resumed its originally planned schedule, with no effort to balance the remainder of the season. Thus, for example, the Baltimore Orioles ended up playing all 13 of their scheduled games against Detroit and the Yankees, and all 12 scheduled games against the Angels and Oakland. But they played only three games (all on the road) against Texas, and only four against Boston.

In any other year, this would have been outrageous. But the practical difficulties in doing anything else were considerable, and players, owners, and fans alike were glad to have some baseball.

Maxim 2: No Incentive to Lose

When baseball resumed, it was announced that there would be a “split season”, with an extra (highly profitable) round of playoffs. The teams that were leading their divisions before the strike, Philadelphia, the Dodgers, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, would play off against the teams that did best in the part of the season after play resumed.

What if one team won both halves of the season? Originally, the second qualifying position was to do to the team with the second-best overall record over the entire season. But then someone noticed that this might create a perverse incentive for a team to lose games late in the season. And this might, indeed, have happened.

In the American League West, Oakland won the first half of the season, and finished the second half narrowly behind Kansas City. As it happened, Texas had six games against Oakland in the last month of the season, of which Oakland won four. If Texas had undertaken to lose all six, Oakland would have won both halves of the season, which would have meant that Texas, the team with the second-best overall record, would have advanced to the playoffs rather than Kansas City. And if might have been even worse. If Oakland had decided that it matched up better against Kansas City than it did against Texas, it might have decided to try to lose some of the games to thwart Texas. Baseball might have been presented with a game in which both sides were trying to lose.

Maxim 3: Avoid Unequal Incentive to Win

If baseball managed to avoid creating a positive incentive to lose, it certainly did not avoid situations in which one team had little incentive to win.

It’s a common problem with long round robins that toward the end there can be teams whose overall results cannot be altered are matched against teams for whom these late results are critical. But the split season format took this to a new level. The four teams that were leading their divisions when the strike started already knew that they were in the playoffs, and so had little incentive to play hard for the entire second half of the season.

Perhaps for this reason, the teams that made the playoffs were not the best teams as measured by the season as a whole. In the National League, St. Louis and Cincinnati were at the top of their respective divisions, but neither one made the playoffs. In the American League West, Kansas City made the playoffs and Texas did not, despite finishing in fourth place on a full year basis, six full games behind the Royals.

 

Why was the split season format, with all its problems, used? Wouldn’t it have been fairer just to  just to proceed as usual except for the missing games?

It would have been fairer, and least as concerns fairness (C), but fairness (C) was not the imperative in 1981. Baseball and its players had lost a lot of income to the strike, and it badly needed to rekindle fan interest. The powers that be in baseball attempted to do that by giving each team a fresh start – essentially a fairness (B) enhancement.

That advantage of the fresh start is not one that’s easy to remember. Those of us old enough to remember the summer of ’81 are likely to remember the strike, and the ad hoc nature of the way baseball attempted to recover. But it’s silly, from this remove, to second-guess the decisions. We hope it’s never necessary to use such tactics again, but it’s not at all clear that the decisions made were bad ones. Unless, of course, you are a fan of St. Louis or Cincinnati.

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