The Major League Baseball season is getting under way this week, 30 years after the strange 1981 split season.
That year began with the threat of a players' strike, and indeed on June 12, with the season a little more than a third complete, the players walked out. They didn't return until early August, at which point nearly 40% of the season had been lost.
Baseball executives were concerned that fans, especially those whose teams were far behind in the standings, had lost interest in the game in the interim. The Blue Jays, for example, were already 19 games out of first place, in an era when only the top team in each of the four divisions made the playoffs. And seven other teams were 10 games out or more. With only 50 or so games remaining for each team, there was little reason to think any of these teams would have any meaningful games left to play.
The owners' solution for this was to change the rules in the middle of the season. First they declared that the four teams that had been leading the divisions at the time of the strike were the "first half winners." They also wiped the slate clean for all teams, starting everyone at 0-0 for the "second half." The four first-half winners would meet the second-half winners in a new round of playoffs before the regular League Championship Series began.
What were the problems with this new system? There were many. The "first half" had ended on an arbitrary date, and teams had played different numbers of games: as many as 60, or as few as 48. The Dodgers won the NL West with a record of 36-21, with the Reds second at 35-21, just a half game behind. But when the "first half" ended, no one knew that half game would be meaningful, so the Reds made no effort to use any down-the-stretch strategies, like juggling the rotation or using a starter in relief.
But the worst problem was not discovered for a few days: Under the rules, if the same team won both halves, its opponent in the first round would be the team in its division with the second best overall record. (The team winning both halves would get a small sweetener: it would get to play four games of that five-game series at home.)
This created the possibility of a team having to lose to make the playoffs. Let's look at an example.
The first half in the American League East ended like this:
Red Sox 30-26
Blue Jays 16-42
Now imagine that the second half has come down to its final game. The Yankees are tied with the Indians for the best second-half record, while the Orioles are mathematically eliminated, though only a game and a half back.
The Yankees' final game that year was against the Orioles. Now think about where that leaves the O's. If they win, the Yanks fall behind the Indians in the second-half race, and those two teams advance to the playoffs. But what if the Orioles lose? Then the Yankees win both halves, and their opponent in the playoffs is the team with the next best overall record. With a second place in the first half and a third place in the second half, that would be the Orioles!
After the discovery of this paradox, baseball changed the rules again, decreeing that if a team won both halves, its playoff opponent would be the second place team in the second half. This also meant that unless a team had won the first half, its first-half record meant nothing.
(Other leagues around the world in various sports that use split seasons solve this problem by scrapping the playoffs and awarding the team that wins both halves the title. Baseball could have given a winner of both halves a bye into the next round, but apparently didn't want to forgo the money from the new extra round of playoffs.)
In the end, no team won both halves, possibly because the first half winners had little incentive. Eight teams made the playoffs, twice as many as any other time in baseball history to that point. But incredibly, the team with the best record did not. The Reds, after missing out to the Dodgers by a half a game in the first half, lost to the Astros in the second half by a game and a half. For the full season, they were 66-42, but they went home, as did the Cardinals, who finished second in both halves but had the third best overall record in baseball. In contrast, the Royals, with a 50-53 record, did make the playoffs: thanks to winning the second half, their poor first half not counting against them.
Except maybe the Dodgers, who eventually won the three-round playoffs, nobody wound up too happy after the season. One would hope that even in the event of another work stoppage someday, we won't see another one like it.