The slippery slope of the Selig era

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Any time Bud Selig introduces a new change to Major League Baseball, opponents of the move predict that it will lead to even more changes down the road. They're rarely wrong.

It's every eighth-graders' favorite fallacy: "But if I don't get the new hoverboard then I'll have no friends and I'll be forced to rob the bank with Griff and his gang! You don't want me going to prison on the cover of USA Today, do you?!"

Ah, the slippery slope. We all know that it's a terrible way to make a point -- we never take a politician seriously when he tells us that this next piece of legislation will send all of our jobs to those lousy prawns in District 9 -- but, used in moderation, it can be a good thing.

The problem with slippery slopes it that they often end up taking analysis too far, sending the original premise along an outlandish and ridiculous trajectory that ends up revealing more about our fears than about the premise itself.

It's something that comes up in baseball conversations all the time. "Jhonny Peralta just signed for $52 million?! Looks like everyone is going to start using PEDs now if that's how well crime pays!" or "You want to put Barry Bonds in the Hall of Fame? Might as well put in Shoeless Joe, Gaylord Perry, and the rest of the cheaters!"

Of course, not all slippery-slope arguments end up being proven wrong or ridiculous. Below are some moves that occurred during Bud Selig's tenure as commissioner wherein the slope proved quite slippery after all.

The Wild Card

First introduced: 1994*

The slippery-slope argument: "Eight teams and three rounds in the playoffs?! It's going to devalue the postseason! Pretty soon everyone will be playing in October!"

The result: The wild card got off to a rocky start in 1994, when the players' strike ended up cancelling the postseason. When it did finally debut in 1995, it was an immediate success, with the Wild Card Yankees playing an all-time great series against the West-winning Mariners. In its first ten years of existence, the Wild Card was responsible for four  World Series winners, with a fifth coming in 2011.

In 2012, the Wild Card was expanded to two teams per league. While this did result in even more teams reaching the postseason (10 of the league's 30 clubs are now technically playoff teams), it was with a tradeoff: wild-card teams would face each other in a one-game, do-or-die round immediately following the season. It wasn't as dire as some might have expected back in 1994, but it was a clear step down that slippery slope.

What to watch out for: After expanding to 32 teams in an effort to replicate the success of the NFL, Major League Baseball creates four four-team divisions in each league and gives playoff spots to the top two teams in each division. With 50% of the league in the postseason, revenues skyrocket!

Interleague Play

First introduced: 1997

The slippery-slope argument: "The best part of Major League Baseball has always been how the best American and National League teams can never meet until the World Series. With interleague play, the two leagues might as well play each other every day!"

The result: Those first few seasons of interleague play were quite limited compared to what we've grown accustomed to. From 1997 through 2001, teams in each division played only their divisional counterparts in the opposite league -- the AL East played the NL East, the Central played the Central and so on. In 2002, the divisions started cycling around, with the AL West playing the NL Central one year, for example, and then the NL East the next year. At the same time, the number of interleague games each team played each year rose from roughly 15 in 1997 to roughly 18 by 2003.

The slippery-slope prediction came true this year, however, when the Houston Astros left to join the junior circuit. With 15 teams in each league, it was now impossible to devise a schedule that didn't include at least one interleague series every day (in practice, there were three or five interleague series happening on pretty much any day of the season). At this point, interleague play is no longer a novelty or an experiment. It is an absolute fact of the baseball schedule and will be around for the rest of time.

What to watch out for: Forget the leagues! Set the schedules so that AL teams are playing AL and NL teams equally! Make sure the Giants play the A's exactly as often as the play the Dodgers and the Yankees play the Red Sox no more than they play the Pirates. What's it all matter anyway?

Instant Replay

First introduced: September 2008 (though umpire Frank Pulli used it once in 1999)

The slippery-slope argument: "Replay will ruin the game! It'll slow everything down! They'll get rid of the human element! Tony Tarasco deserved what happened to him! What's next? Replay on plays in the field? Robot umps?!"

The result: When instant replay was first announced during the 2008 season, it was made perfectly clear that it was to be used for boundary calls on potential home runs only. Shortly after the announcement, Bud Selig made this statement: "This is what instant replay will be and it will not be expanded. ... Not as long as I'm commissioner."

Barely five years later -- or, one Pablo Sandoval career later -- replay is expanding. In 2014, Major League Baseball will allow replay to be used on calls on the field. According to most recent reports, the new system will allow managers to issue two challenges per game, with umpires being allowed to use their discretion on other calls. That's a far cry from what Commissioner Selig promised in 2008.

What to watch out for: Definitely robot umps! Which, from what I learned from Pacific Rim, will come in handy when a Godzilla-like creature attacks our baseball stadiums.

If this history makes you worry about the rest of baseball's many changes under Selig's oversight, remember that not all innovations slide down the slope. The best counter-example of this (even if it didn't happen under Selig's watch) is the designated hitter:

The Designated Hitter

First introduced: 1973

The slippery-slope argument: "We're taking the bats out of pitchers' hands! This will ruin the game! It won't be long before the NL starts using this 'designated pinch hitter' too and then what will baseball be?!"

The result: The DH experiment, which began in 1973, had a mixed reception when it was introduced. Some American League stars, like Carl Yastrzemski, were opposed to the idea outright while some NL bigwigs, such as Padres president Buzzie Bavasi, were hoping to implement it in short order. And while the change was successful in the American League -- just ask a diehard AL fan what he thinks about lifting an in-the-groove pitcher for a pinch-hitter in a tight game -- it never migrated over to the NL.

Of course, with the Astros' move to the American League unbalancing the leagues so that interleague play is now an everyday thing, conversations about uniting the two leagues under one rulebook have ramped up again. It might eventually happen, but I think forty years is a pretty safe limit on any slippery-slope arguments.

Not that that's good news to any Houston fans predicting doom and gloom when their team switched leagues. That slippery slope is all too recent!

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