The Year Baseball Stopped Making Sense

Tigres de Aragua are Venezuela's new baseball champs, after a season marred by confusion and controversy stemming from the League's bizarre new qualification format.

The baseball season is over, Tigres are the champions…hurray, maracayeros! Except, how exactly did Tigres even make it to the playoffs at all? They weren’t one of the top five teams in the league, which is what it had always taken to make the Round Robin. And yet, Tareck El Aissami got to uncork his champagne last night.

In fact, Tigres didn’t even win most of their regular season games, and made it to the playoffs largely through the mysterious workings of a controversial new season format that completely upended how qualification works.

Instead of the usual -five teams making it to the postseason based on their win-loss records, advancing to the round-robin amongst themselves-, we now have a season divided in two halves: one from mid-October to mid-November, and one from then until December 29. These records are independent from each other. You score points in both halves, and the six teams with most points overall advance. Easy, right? Not quite.

In each half of the season, points were handed out as follows: 8 for the first place, 7 for second, 6 for third, 5 for fourth, 4,5 for fifth, 4 for the sixth, 3,5 for the seventh and finally, 3 for the last place.

Tigres wasn’t a team that excelled all the way throughout the season. During the first half, they had a respectable 19 wins and 13 defeats. The trouble starts with the second half, with an effortless performance of just 12 wins, only better than the post-Chinita festivities antics of Zulia’s Aguilas.

Granted, Tigres played good ball in the postseason, beating both Bravos and favorite Tiburones, but it isn’t clear whether they would have advanced to the playoffs under previous League rules to begin with.

Several league executives promoted these changes trying to make the season “exciting until the very end.” The idea seemed to be to keep those last qualifying berths in play until the very end – as a way of keeping elusive bums on stadium seats.

Also, having six teams instead of five in the mix meant more spectators invested and investing. It all boils down to putting sales ahead of the game. Naturally, the product’s quality suffered, as one recognized player in the game seems to think.

Of course, this format has infuriated fans, considering the new system “anti-baseball”. To many, this apertura/clausura structure is closer to other sports such as soccer. It’s been so controversial that even a former League President weighed in.

The new format didn’t get a helping hand when it needed one either. Not only was it complicated and hard to follow, but every scenario that could add to the confusion, happened.

It was established to bring an end to tiebreakers. But as soon as the new format was put to the test, a three-way tie ensued with Caracas’ Leones, Anzoátegui’s Caribes, and Lara’s Cardenales, which was resolved with a quite “convenient” doubleheader played in Caracas a day before New Year’s Eve. The first two teams advanced and Cardenales was left out in the cold.

But this wasn’t the only trouble the new league format encountered. It gave teams an incentive to throw games under certain circumstances. It’s points what now matter, not wins. And if your nearest rival on the table doesn’t score any, then you don’t have to either.

Cardenales, although initially in favor of the changes, got to experience the absurdity first hand. Technically speaking, Cardenales could’ve lost its last game and still made it through, although not being anywhere near qualified at the time. Ganar perdiendo was a motto for some towards the end of the season. A more blunt example of this involves freshly crowned Tigres, after they lost a game to Caribes on December 28, ensuring them a third-place spot.

More weirdness ensued. La Guaira’s Tiburones, who were first in the “apertura”, just had to show up for the second part of the tournament, since they had secured their spot for the playoffs a full month-and-a-half before the season was over.

Many were suspicious that Tiburones wouldn’t keep playing as well as they had, since they were qualified. A valid but hard argument to prove, yet they did finish 6th in the second half in the end.

For some teams the new format helped. Margarita’s Bravos, usually last place, was able to ensure enough points for a postseason berth in spite of a negative record, just like Tigres.

As expected, this led to reporters and fans having a very hard time trying to make out what could possibly happen next. Only a college student from Ciudad Ojeda was successful in explaining things on Twitter, and other, more seasoned experts had to rely on his estimations of what could happen.

Venezuelans are devoted to their baseball; but the league’s PR was horrible this year. You things are bad when a simple scoreboard became a somewhat obscure number-crunching exercise, that fans, baseball insiders, and even players and managers interviewed about the format said they didn’t get it.

For some, the whole point here was to allow underperforming teams to keep dreaming of a way into the semifinals until the end: just another way of rewarding mediocrity.

Some owners have already expressed their intentions of reviewing the controversial format in the next “secret” League Convention, to be held outside of Venezuela to make sure media won’t have much access. You can be sure the defending champions will try to keep this new format in place, but we have to wait until the other seven teams have their say.

I personally can’t wait to see the back of this mess of a format: figuring out how your favorite team is doing shouldn’t require an MIT degree.

For a country with such a long tradition and a deep relationship with this sport, things have never felt so unfamiliar and far from home as this season has. It might as well been replaced by cricket. That would’ve been more logical and easier to follow, at least.