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Commentaryby Gerald Neily12:45 pmApr 6, 20100

Orioles Opening Day goal: learn to love third place!

Above: The Rays and Orioles sing the national anthem at Tropicana Field on Opening Day. The Rays went on to win 4-3.

As usual at the start of the 2010 season, our Orioles find themselves staring down the muzzle of the Yankees and Red Sox and their seemingly unlimited payrolls. But what is perhaps more disconcerting is that the Orioles’ great role model for how to rebuild on a budget, the Tampa Bay Rays, have done almost everything right but are still only vying with the O’s for the hollow honor of third place.

On Opening Day, let’s remember that Baltimore’s problems are created not so much here as in Mordor, or, whatever sulfuric place is the home of the Dark Lords of Baseball.

Building with young players is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. The Rays felt they had to trade underachieving but popular Scott Kazmir last year, and he quickly turned it around as soon as he set foot on the LA Angels’ mound. This year, another homegrown fan fave, Carl Crawford is eligible for free agency at season’s end, so pressure will mount to unload him as well, just as Toronto did with Roy Halladay. This gives the O’s an opportunity to feed on the misery of the also-rans, just as the Yankees and Red Sox feed on the O’s in the AL-East food chain.

Things could be worse. The lowly Cleveland Indians supplied the last two Cy Young award winners, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, to the Yankees and Phillies, and then Victor Martinez to the Red Sox. If our Matt Wieters is fortunate, maybe he’ll be as good a catcher as Victor Martinez in a couple of years.

That’s how it goes. The Lords of Baseball have decided that they need to stack the deck to ensure that the top market teams in Boston, New York and LA are always good. The NFL preaches parity, so that even the New Orleans’ “Who Dat Nation” has a national following, while Los Angeles doesn’t even have a team at all. But baseball believes that it must feed its local power machines and that nobody outside Kansas City is going to embrace the Royals for long, no matter how many feel-good story lines can be concocted.

Crumbs for the little guys

So the so-called small market baseball teams are left to forage. Its no comfort for fans to know that the O’s are actually sitting pretty financially with a good chunk of the Washington Nats’ TV revenue and 50% higher “prime pricing” for tickets to its eighteen Yankees and Red Sox home games. The O’s simply have no particular incentive to spend all that extra cash on players. Which is a great way to ensure that Peter Angelos doesn’t threaten to pull a Bob Irsay or Edward Bennett Williams on us, but it offers little hope either. How do we compete?

There’s another sport with a power imbalance as blatant as baseball, and it seems to be doing fine. Last night, the perennial powerhouse Duke Blue Devils, demonically led by the cold corporate scowl of Koach K, faced off for the NCAA college basketball championship against the obscure Butler Bulldogs of the lowly Horizon League. Duke and Butler were the two survivors of the 65 team NCAA tournament where anything can happen and usually does, so much so that they’re talking about increasing the mix to 96 teams next year.

Butler vs. Duke was the quintessential David vs. Goliath. What’s not to like? College basketball is perfectly happy to avoid pitting the two best teams in its championship game. Instead, they give us the best against the rest, which gives everyone something to identify with. If you’re going to have a power imbalance, as the MLB and NCAA obviously do, you need to work with it.

Baseball should learn from NCAA Basketball

Here’s the solution to the baseball imbalance. Baseball should increase its postseason field from eight teams to twelve. The two best teams in each league would get first round byes. The remaining four teams in each league would then be subject to a brief best-of-three series to determine who gets to play the big boys.

The first round byes would be highly treasured because in baseball, it’s very easy to lose any three game series. The Yankees do not like leaving anything to chance. Similarly, the third and forth “next best” seeds would also be highly prized because they would get all three home games in those crucial first-round series. Finally, the fifth and sixth seeds would be prized because they offer something universal that we all want: Hope.

Yeah, purists would complain, blah, blah, blah. And yeah, it would be a good idea to trim the regular season a bit to accommodate a few extra postseason games. But the stability of baseball tradition is a massive illusion. The Commissioner has recently formed yet another “special committee” to look into these kinds of changes, which have occurred throughout the history of baseball.

Baseball has made its unbalanced bed, so now we all have to figure out how to sleep in it. With the Orioles in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, we need a reason to get excited about third place.

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