An angry grass roots protest movement among major league general managers has forced baseball to agree to review, and likely change, its much-criticized format for the second half of this strike-damaged season.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and both league presidents will meet Monday in New York to begin facing the growing firestorm of problems -- particularly the various scenarios under which a team might have to "throw" or forfeit a late-season game in order to make the playoffs -- that have come out of the owners' ill-conceived plan for a second season.
"The commissioner and league presidents have been conferring on the integrity questions raised by some of our clubs as a result of adoption of a split-season plan," said a telex message from the commissioner's office to all teams yesterday. "They expect to make an announcement to all clubs on this subject by Monday afternoon."
"We'll do something . . . " Lee MacPhail, the American League president, said yesterday. "I'm not sure what shape it will take, but we'll see if we can think up some solution to all the problems that have been raised.
"I'm not naive enough to think we'll find a complete solution . . . but we absolutely can't permit a situation to arise where a team would have a lot more to gain by losing than winning."
That, however, may be a bigger obstacle than baseball expects. At this hour, all of the proposed options before the game either create new problems of their own, or else will have serious difficulty in getting enough votes to become reality.
"We'll address the problem . . . Something will be done," Kuhn said yesterday. Yet neither he, nor anyone else, has, at this hour, put forward a plan that is both fair and feasible.
"We in baseball are being widely criticized, and justifiably," said Baltimore General Manager Hank Peters, one of a half-dozen general managers who, in the last couple of days, have been burning the telephone and telex lines trying to mount enough strength to force changes in the game's disastrous impromptu format.
"We are being chastised for our stupidity, and there's nothing we can do about that," Peters said. "We've earned it. But I have tried to get people to understand that we can also be commended for our courage and common sense if we act quickly and remedy our problems."
Baseball's greatest crisis of conscience -- and its biggest public snafu -- in generations, and perhaps in its entire history, began coming to a head this week as first Chicago White Sox Manager Tony LaRussa, then St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog, went on the record stating the obvious: If they had to choose between losing a game or making the playoffs, they'd find a way to lose.
In the last two days, general managers and executives in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago (AL) have led a heated campaign to force baseball's leadership to reappraise the format of the split season. Not surprisingly, all those teams, save Texas, had enough foresight not to vote for the split season in the first place.
The first cannon shot came from Dick Wagner, president of the Reds, who, reacting to stories that several White Sox players had said they would lose games if helped them, fired off a telex to every team in baseball, as well as its executive committee:
". . . All of us in baseball," Wagner said in the telex, "owe it to the preservation of the integrity of the game to admit that a format was adopted with too much haste and without a full evaluation or discussion of the dangers involved. We must have the courage to admit a mistake and go about rectifying the situation."
"The Cardinals would strongly endorse Dick's suggestion," Herzog said. "What we have now is destructive to the structure of baseball."
Earlier yesterday, he said on national television that he would lose on purpose if it meant getting in the playoffs. "I'd tell the public the day before the game, 'I'm sorry but the Cards have to lose this game,' " said Herzog. "I'll activate myself, I'd be the catcher and I'd have the players throw with the other hand."
"People in baseball are just beginning to realize what we've got on our hands," Peters said. "That in itself is quite an indictment. Our negotiating committee locked themselves in place in the way they worded their settlement with the players. It's created totally unnecessary problems . . . Perhaps there was an exhaustion factor. Everybody just said: 'That's enough. No more negotiating.'
"I talked to our player representatives, Mark Belanger and Doug DeCinces, before all this was voted on. They told me that the players thought it was stupid that we'd limited ourselves to two choices (continuation or split season). They assured me that they thought there'd be very little problem coming back to the players for approval if we decided we wanted some other format."
Under the current system, the last week of the season could -- with enough bad luck -- be a nightmare. As it stands, the winner of the first half of the season will play the winner of the second half in a new tier of playoffs. That sounds simple enough. And it is.
All the problems start if the same team wins both halves. In that case, under the current arrangement, the double winner would play the team in its division with the second-best overall winning percentage for the season.
In the minors, which has had split seasons for years, such a double winner gets a "bye" in the playoffs, thus ending all problems. Baseball, however, never considered a bye in 1981, for two reasons. First, it was unlikely that any teams, other than the four retroactive first-half winners, would have any conceivable motive for voting favorably for a bye that would certainly help some other team while it might well come back to hurt them.
"The vote would be 22 to 4 against it," Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver said. Secondly, baseball -- for several reasons -- wanted the certainty of a full eight-team playoff, which would mean more revenue for both players and owners, as well as a hefty package of new games to sell to TV. With byes, no one would know for certain until the end of the season whether the new playoffs would have four, five, six, seven or eight teams involved.
Without byes, a myriad of bad possibilities arise.
A double winner could throw games to help determine who it would meet in the playoffs. Or, a team with no chance to win either half, but with a lock on the second-best percentage in the division, might want to lose a game to a first-half champ so that it would then be a double champ.
Anybody who didn't think of those possibilities -- or still gets a headache considering them -- is not alone. "Don't feel bad," said MacPhail. "We didn't figure it out either. . . . That's what got us in trouble in the first place. We don't want to rush in finding a solution and then go through this all again. However, I would say that we better get it done this week."
Baseball has two attractive alternative proposals that folks like Wagner, Peters and Eddie Robinson of Texas are pushing. However, each has problems.
Peters has suggested a playoff between the first and second-place teams in each division. That would eliminated any hint of thrown games or mixed motives.
"Instead of creating interest, this split season is killing it," Peters said. "If we'd just continued the season as it was, there would now be 16 teams within six games of first place. Every one of them could legitimately claim they were in a pennant race," said Peters.
"We said we were putting every team back in the races," snorted the unusually angry Peters. "That's ridiculous. What we did was kill natural races that it had taken two months to create. Now, by the time we create these new races, the season will almost be over and it'll do us no good."
Why couldn't the Peters Plan still be put into effect ? "The first-half winners might be against it, since they've already been awarded titles that they didn't do a thing to earn, and wouldn't want to give them back. And the really bad teams might be against it, since they (could) be out of the races now," said Peters. "That might be enough votes to stop it."
The second plan, pushed by the Reds, Rangers and White Sox, has been thought for the last fortnight to solve all the problems. Under that notion, the season would be split and a second-half champ created. However, no first-half winner would be declared. The second-half winner would simply meet the club that, excluding itself, would have the best overall record.
This would put eight teams in the picture and also create the ersatz fresh start. Only the first-half winners would have an obvious self-interest in voting against such a plan.
Good as this second plan may seem, McPhail can probably shoot it dead.
"There are almost as many integrity problems with the so-called Cincinnati-Texas-Chicago plan as the one we've got now," said McPhail. "Say we go into the last weekend and the Tigers are ahead by percentage points over New York, but the Orioles have the best overall record of the three for the whole season. Then the Orioles would be in the same bind of having a better chance of making the playoffs if they lost."
So, what is the solution which everyone says will be found?
"We're working on a couple of things," McPhail said. He wouldn't elaborate.