In the next two months, baseball is going to find itself in a peculiar sort of peril.
The game desperately wants its new split season with its eight play-off teams to be a vast success, producing on-the-field dramatics, record late-season attendance and huge TV rating with as many as 20 new play-off games.
However, if baseball knew what was good for it -- which, of course, it almost never does -- it wouldn't want the new gimmick to work too well, at least it become a curse that could do more permanent damage to the game than this year's strike.
Baseballhs ownership, starting with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, drools at the thought of expanded playoffs. Given half a chance, the owners will try to turn this year's split-season turkey into a permanent albatross around the game's neck.
In the short run, eight teams in the playoffs is a cheap-thrill moneymaker; in the long run, it is the best way imaginable to erode baseball's fundamental appeal and start the sport on the downward path to the regular-season monotony that contaminates both the NBA and NHL.
Baseball's greatest structural asset is that it has by far the best season format of the four major American professional sports. While football, basketball and hockey all race to see which can let the most mediocre teams into its bloated playoffs, thus devaluing its regular-season product, baseball has stood alone in maintaining its basic integrity.
The NFL lets 10 of its 28 teams into the playoffs, the NBA 12 of 23 and the NHL a preposterous 16 of 21.
Baseball, by contrast, only allows four of 26 into its fall showcase. The 162 games of the regular season are vitally important because a team that finishes second in its division is dead. There is no wild card and no back door.
Is it completely fair? Of course not. That's whaths so good about it.
For instance, last year the Baltimore Orioles won 100 games, the second best total in baseball, and, over the last 100 games of the season, were clearly the hottest team in the sport. If they had made the playoffs, a wise man would have made them the favorites to become world champions.
Baseball's glory is that the Orioles did not make the playoffs. For months, the Birds chased the Yankees, coming from 11 1/2 games behind to a week-long tie in the loss column. Instead of a paltry three-out-of-five-game miniplayoff series that wouldn't even last a week, the Orioles and Yankees kept their fans excited and worried for six months, the last three months of which were sheer prickly pleasure.
As soon as baseball institutes a split season, or eight-team playoffs on a permanent basis -- and don't be the game isn't dumb enough to do it -- there will never again be a genuinely great pennant race.
In that case, the Yankees will never again nip the Birds, 103 wins to 100, nor will the '78 Yankees come from 14 1/2 games behind to force a one-day, sudden-death playoff.
Oh, teams could post identical records, but they wouldn't mean one-tenth as much. Teams as good as the '78 Yankees and Red Sox, or the '80 Orioles and Yankees, would know by the Fourth of July that they were the cream of the division and that they'd be meeting each other in October.
If baseball changes its structure and rules out the exaltation of a spectacular sustained pennant race, like the '51 Dodger-Giant brawl or dozens of others, it will have taken the central jewel out of the crown of its sport and smashed it.
The pennant race between great teams is the sine qua non of the sport, always has been and always will be. To kill it would be criminal.
Under an eight-playoff-team arrangement, what would baseball have? Most likely, just a bunch of late-season battles for second-place or wild-card spots. Big deal. Who cares? Is a fight for second place to get into a three-tiered playoff the stuff of which legends are made?
In essence, what baseball is in danger of doing is trading a tawdry, one-week miniplayoff series for its traditional full-season pennant race.
Once the novelty wears off, the damage to the game would be enormous.
You can't fool diehard fans. They know when a game means nothing to the athletes involved, and, sooner or later, they stop coming to such contests.
A split season in which first-half champions -- no matter what anybody says -- will always have lessened motivation in the second half, is equally abominable at the major-league level. You don't pollute the one remaining, nearly pure product on the pro sports market.
This morning, Tony Kubek stood in the lobby of the O'Hare Hilton here, where, a day before, baseball's owners had met to try and figure out the best way to ruin what was left of the season.
"Is this split schedule as bad as I think it is?" said the former New York Yankee all-star and NBC announcer, rhetorically. "What a joke . . . the worst yet."
Like any good fan, Kubek chatted about all the built-in inequities and potential atrocities that the owners' ill-conceived format has given baseball.
"In two days, baseball is going to go on trial," said Kubek, "whether it knows it or not."
Hopefully, of the sake of the future of the sport, baseball will fail its phony split-season test.