If I Were the Sports Czar

I am on vacation this week, so let’s do something light and largely pointless. Let’s talk about sports. Specifically, let’s talk about my ideas to make them better.

First, let’s look at the two sports that overlap this time of year: the NCAA basketball tournament, and Major League Baseball.

For March Madness, here’s my idea: expand the NCAA tourney from 68 to 72 teams. I would then divide the 72 teams into 4 brackets (just like it is now), but I would then seed them 1 through 18. Before the big opening weekend of March Madness, I would have the 15 seed play the 18 seed, and the 16 play the 17. The winner of the 15/18 game would play the 2 seed in each bracket, and the winner of the 16/17 game would play the 1 seed. This does a number of good things (at least in my mind):

  1. Adds four teams to the tournament, which doesn’t dramatically change the makeup, but does allow one or two additional mid-major teams to get in the tourney, and show what they can do against teams that refuse to schedule them during the regular season.
  2. Doubles the number of “play-in” games, making each night more intriguing.
  3. It gives the lowest-seed teams a chance to actually win a tournament game. And, to make it more exciting, the NCAA could decide to let the 15 and 16 seeds host the play-in games. This would put these opening NCAA games on college campuses, increasing the interest and excitement.
  4. The NCAA makes more money. And as we all know, the NCAA likes making more money.

Ok, that’s NCAA basketball. I’m going to skip the NBA, because…well, because I just don’t care about the NBA.

So, on to baseball. I would expand the wild card game to a three-game series. Currently, the two wild card teams in each league (American and National) play a one-game, sudden-death, loser-go-home free-for-all. While that’s exciting, for sure, it takes a sport with 162 games, and forces four teams to prove their postseason worth in only one game. And if in that one game, you have to face a guy like Madison Bumgarner or Jake Arrieta, you’re likely toast.

So, why not make the wild card a three-game series? This has the benefit of replicating what the season actually is. The six-month baseball season can be broken down, essentially, into lots of little three-game seasons. And the best teams tackle the season by trying to win as many three-game series as they can.

So, carry this over into the wild card, with a slight twist — and a throwback to the old days: play the first two games of a three-game wild card as a doubleheader. So, if the team that hosts the doubleheader wins both games, they move on without having to try to win the wild card on the road. But, if the visiting team can win one of those 2, they have the chance to win the third game at home. Since it seems to me to be a coin flip which is better — hosting the doubleheader, or having the final game at home — both wild card teams essentially have access to home field opportunity.

In the end, this simple change would add excitement and money (something MLB enjoys, just like the NCAA) — all without adding any extra days to an already-inflated postseason calendar.

On to college football. I think it’s time to expand to an eight-team playoff. To pick those 8, I would give an automatic bid to the team that wins the championship of the 4 top conferences. The remaining 4 bids would go to 4 at-large teams — determined in the same way the 4 teams are now picked.

Why four automatic bids? Well, it’s because there are five power conferences, and by only giving an automatic bid to the four, it serves as motivation to the teams in the those conferences to schedule stronger games. Each conference will be ranked on the strength of its out-of-conference schedule, and since no conference will want to miss out on an automatic bid, they’ll play better games.

In short, I see it working this way: if a team is the champion of one of football’s four best conferences, it deserves an automatic bid — even if it stumbled in the regular season (I see you Penn State). But with four at-large bids, deserving teams that haven’t won their conference also have a shot. And if adding an additional playoff game is too much for college students (I say this with no sense of sarcasm), then go back to 11 regular-season games.

Okay, one more: the National Hockey League. For that, I only have one suggestion: Let every team into the playoffs. Every. Single. Team. And then have a really short, 30-game regular season. With the league going to 31 teams this fall, have each team play each other team once — and that’s it. Begin the playoffs at that point, since, really, that’s all that matters anyway. I mean, does anyone really pay attention to the NHL regular season (outside of Canada, I mean)?

So, that’s what I would do if I were Sports Czar. What would you do?


God & A Torn Achilles

He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. He pitches for my favorite team. And from all I can tell, he’s a great guy. That’s a pretty good combination. But sometimes bad, fluky stuff happens to good guys.

Last Saturday, the St. Louis Cardinals were playing the Milwaukee Brewers. Adam Wainwright had breezed through four innings, doing what he does best — shut down opposing batters. But then it was his turn to pick up the bat, and when he hit a pop fly along the first base line, he began to run — only to tear his Achilles heel.

And just like that, his season was over. Off the field. Til next year. I hate that for Adam. For his family. For his teammates. And, as a fan, I hate to think what this means for my favorite team.

But life is like that, isn’t it? If it’s not an Achilles, it’s an aorta. Or a lost job. Or a lost relationship. Maybe this is why people say, Life just threw him a curve ball — because Life has a way of pitching you something you aren’t expecting.

But I am confident Adam will be okay. And I’m not talking about his Achilles. I hope that will be okay; no doubt he’ll have the best doctors and the best rehab. But even more than his foot, I am confident Adam will be fine because he sees the bigger picture: baseball isn’t life. And hardships don’t determine who we are.

On Adam’s twitter account, his last post before his lost Achilles is a video of a guy passionately preaching about the hope we have in Jesus. The preacher takes a look at Barabbas — the guy set free instead of Jesus — and then says: We are all Barabbas. All of us depend on Jesus for life.

What does all of this have to do with a torn Achilles? Nothing. And Everything.

Nothing, because followers of Jesus still face torn Achilles and blown aortas; broken hearts and broken relationships. Walking with Jesus provides no guarantees for your health, your safety, or your security. As the writer Eugene Peterson points out, hitting your thumb with a hammer hurts the same, whether you are a Christian or not.

But Adam’s faith has everything to do with his Achilles — because he knows what all followers of Jesus eventually come to learn: life is hard. Bad stuff happens. But our faith helps us see the Big Picture: that God loves us. That Jesus gives us life. That His Spirit guides us, in good times and in bad. For ultimately, our faith is not in our bodies, or our abilities, or our accomplishments, or life being exactly what we want it to be.

In the end, our faith is in God, who walks with us through whatever we face; who is present in whatever we face; and is still God no matter what.

I think Adam knows that. I hope you do, too. No matter what you face.