The 2001 Seattle Mariners may be the best baseball team of my lifetime. Led by Ichiro Suzuki – a veteran from Japan in his MLB rookie year – Edgar Martinez and Bret Boone, they won a record 116 games. But they are a footnote in baseball history because they didn’t win the World Series. They fell in the American League Championship Series, four games to two, to the New York Yankees. (That Yankees team, at the tail end of their dynasty years, eventually lost to Arizona in a dramatic seventh game of the World Series.)
The 2007 New England Patriots may be the best football team of my lifetime. They were the first team ever to go 16-0 in the regular season, but because they lost to the Giants – a 10-6 Wild Card team – in the Super Bowl they’re mostly remembered as team that couldn’t seal the deal.
This year’s World Series will be contested between two Wild Card teams not good enough to win one of their league’s three divisions. The San Francisco finished 88-74, tied for the fourth best record in the National League. The Kansas City Royals, at 89-73, were also fourth in the AL, and nine games back of the Angels. Since 2000, just three World Series champions had the best record in baseball.
In American sports, the championship is the point. We don’t much care how you got there. With the advent of multiple rounds of playoffs, and the introduction of wild card teams, the regular season is now just an extended throat clearing before the main event. It’s only purpose – outside of selling tickets, of course – is to establish seedings for all-important post season tournament. And the seedings rarely matter.
It’s particularly problematic in baseball. Post-season football is pretty much like regular season football – teams play once a week, the same strategies apply – but post-season baseball is a different sport. Teams built to play 162 games now have to win one game at a time. The regular season rewards organizational depth, 5-man rotations and harboring resources. Savvy managers will throw an inferior pitcher to rest a better one, sacrificing one game now to win two or three later. In the post season, pitchers throw with short rest, rotations shrink to three and there’s no value in saving your reliever for tomorrow when there might not be a tomorrow.
Imagine taking the first 10 finishers in the Olympic marathon and having them run a 400 meter sprint. The winner gets the gold medal.
My solution: Give a trophy to the regular season champion.
I’m not suggesting getting rid of the post season. I’m saying let’s acknowledge the accomplishment of finishing the season with the best record. Let’s reward excellence.
Giving out two trophies in a season might seem unorthodox, but that’s standard practice in international soccer. Teams in the English Premier League compete for multiple championships over the course of the season: along with the regular season winner, there’s the Football Association tournament and the League Cup. The best teams also compete in European-wide tournaments. Teams talk about winning multiple trophies, or silverware, and the best teams boast of wining the treble – three trophies in one season (last done by Manchester United in 1998-99).
This will not be an easy adjustment for U.S. sports fans. The National Hockey League gives the President’s Cup to the team with the best record. It you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone. (It probably doesn’t help that the Stanley Cup is the most iconic trophy in North American sports).
Another obstacle: Unlike European sports, Americans leagues are broken up into leagues and divisions. You could hand out trophies for the best record in each league (or football conference) but I’d rather not. One trophy for the best record. Ties are broken by run (or point) differential.
So congratulations, you 2002 Oakland A’s, winners of 103 Moneyball games! Your efforts are rewarded. Well done, 2004 St. Louis Cardinals (105) and 1998 Atlanta Braves (106). The 1954 Cleveland Indians, winners of an astonishing 111 games in an 154-games season, finally get their championship banner. The 2009 and 1998 Yankees are double winners (and unfortunately, so are the 2013 and 2007 Red Sox).
And take a bow, 2001 Mariners. The best regular season of all time deserves a trophy.