Major league baseball is expected to announce as early as this afternoon what Commissioner Bowie Kuhn calls "an adjustment" to its controversial playoff format that will eliminate the potential nightmare of a team throwing a game to make the playoffs.
The new plan discussed by Kuhn and the two league presidents most likely would change the method for selecting a wild-card team if the same team wins its division in both halves of this unique split season.
Currently, the team with the second-best overall winning percentage for both seasons would get the wild-card berth. The expected revision would make the second-place team in the season's second half the wild-card entry.
The plan, which American League President Lee MacPhail says "would solve all the integrity problems," is not expected to draw opposition from the Major League Baseball Players Association, which must approve it.
Even before it formally is announced, the new plan has been criticized by Baltimore General Manager Hank Peters for being "cosmetic." More criticism is likely from the half-dozen big-league general managers who have been lobbying in recent days for baseball to undo its self-inflicted damage.
"We don't want to change the overall format that we have," said MacPhail. "We simply want to solve this 'integrity' question. The final decision has not been made. We'll discuss it again on Monday. But, yes, going to the second-place team in the second half as the wild-card would solve the problem."
"We'll make an announcement (stating there will be a change) in the next day or two," said Kuhn before the ABC-TV game yesterday, adding that he planned no disciplinary action against either Tony LaRussa of the Chicago White Sox or Whitey Herzog of St. Louis, the managers who have said publicly that they would forfeit or deliberately lose games if necessary. The announcement could be delayed until Tuesday because of travel difficulties caused by the air controllers' strike.
"We in administration put them in this position in the first place," Kuhn said. "This (possibility) is one that slipped by us . . . Yes, that change (to a new wild-card system) is certainly one of the things we're considering."
General managers such as Peters hardly consider this a cure-all to what they have believed an ill-conceived format that adds a tier of playoffs -- and many problems -- to make up at the box office, and in television revenues, money lost during the 50-day player strike.
Should it be adopted, the most obvious difficulty is that a team with the second-best full-season record in its division might not make the playoffs.
"That's true," said MacPhail, "but such a team wouldn't have been good enough to win the first half, or finish first or second in the second half. I can't worry about that team too much."
In Baltimore, Peters said: "As happens so often in life, you get the tiger by the tail and then you don't know how to let go of him. That's baseball's predicament.
"Our leadership has made so many mistakes that now I'm apprehensive that they'll just compound the error. Sometimes you really get disappointed with the way baseball is run," said Peters. "The answer is to admit our mistake and scrap this messed-up system we've stuck ourselves with and get a decent format.
"What I suggested at the owners' meeting (10 days ago in Chicago) was that we discuss several alternatives, vote on all of them, hopefully agree on two or three sensible plans, then submit them all to the players and ask, 'Which one do you guys like best?'
"That would have been an unprecedented act of good will toward the players at a time when we need to improve relations. And it wouldn't have cost a cent," said Peters, adding, "We have at least three possible plans that are better than what we've got, but none of them have even been discussed."
"Our leadership has gotten us into this terribly repulsive situation," said Dick Wagner, president of the Cincinnati Reds. "It wasn't well thought out . . . In essence, it was forced on us . . . The commissioner says that 'the integrity of the game' is his thing . . . Well, this problem is the commissioner's job and he has to face up to it."
It appears that, barring a change of heart by Kuhn, MacPhail and NL President Chub Feeney under pressure from dissidents in management, some appealing formats for the remainder of the season will not even be discussed.
"Give a bye to a team that wins both halves," said Peters. "That's how the minors do it. Or, just play out the season with no split, then have the top two teams in each division face each other in a playoff. That's pure, simple, fair and hasn't got one problem with it, except that you couldn't have a split season, which is a dumb idea anyway. We haven't created pennant races with this new season. We've killed them."
However, MacPhail says, "We've talked about every conceivable plan. I believe that doing things like (Peters' ideas) would only complicate the problem. I don't think we have time to go back for another owners' meeting and then ratification by the players."
"I'm afraid we're looking for a cosmetic solution," said Peters, who then outlined a plan that the game's hierarchy was temporarily infatuated with. "They were talking about adding another level of playoffs, a one-game playoff between two teams if it came to the point where one of them could throw a game that would put the other one out of the playoffs and itself in."
MacPhail acknowledged that such a plan got serious consideration. "But, though it's more remote, you could still have dumped games under that arrangement. I don't even want to get an example. Just believe me, it could happen."
The plan baseball now thinks is foolproof on the integrity question does have a loophole. A double champion could come to the last weekend of the season and, by throwing a game or games, have a heavy hand in deciding which team it would meet in the new preplayoff series. As MacPhail might say, don't ask for the details, just be assured it could easily happen.
"Nothing is going to be perfect," said MacPhail. "One of our executives is a master bridge player. He told me that once in international play a country realized that it had to lose a match in order to advance to the next round of play.
"The best minds in bridge worked on the problem."
What was the solution?
"They couldn't find one," MacPhail said.