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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS EQUAL SUBTRACTION BY DIVISION

Any day now, the Einsteins who run baseball are expected to agree on a scaled-down realignment plan that could result in seven teams switching leagues. Maybe they'll even announce it during the ninth inning of a playoff game, to provide the maximum annoyance and distraction for their fans.

If you ask me, the owners should be dealing with more pressing concerns -- like trashing their ridiculous division series format and devising a fair and sensible first-round system.

The current setup is a joke. Sending a team on the road for the first two games of a best-of-five series is not a "home-field advantage." It's minor-league stuff. It's hardly an advantage if you can be one game from elimination without ever seeing your home ballpark.

Look at the Baltimore Orioles. They led the American League East from wire-to-wire this season, becoming only the third team in history to do so. Their reward for such an achievement? A 3,000-mile airplane ride to Seattle for the first two games of the division series. And a meeting with Randy Johnson in Game One in the rowdy, raucous Kingdome.

The O's know all about the so-called home advantage. Last year, the Indians had the best record in baseball. They came to Baltimore, lost the first two games of the division series, and wound up losing in four games.

So it's no surprise that the O's were a bit ambivalent in September. Winning the AL East title over the Yankees would be nice. But if it meant opening the playoffs on the road, and facing Johnson twice, would it be worth it?

"Do we grind it out to get home-field advantage, which I don't think is really home-field advantage?" said O's manager Davey Johnson. "We're obviously trying to win a flag, but emotions are kind of mixed. It's kind of funny, but it's not good for baseball."

"Good for baseball." What a novel concept.

If baseball insists on a best-of-five series, the team with the home advantage should host Games One, Two and Five, the way they do in the NBA. It spreads the home-field edge out in a genuinely "advantageous" manner.

But the real solution is to do away with best-of-five series altogether. Five games simply isn't sufficient to decide a winner in a baseball playoff. It's fine in basketball, where a team's physical superiority can quickly manifest itself. In the NBA, your star players decide every game. They're a constant, withering force.

Baseball is different. It is all about starting pitching, and the starters pitch only every fourth or fifth day. One team's superiority is spread out among a larger roster. It can take much longer for those advantages to become apparent.

You need seven games to make a baseball playoff meaningful. And even seven games isn't always enough. A series is a different animal. It always has been. No matter how many games are played, a short series can never be a true mirror of the 162-game season.

Numerous teams have won the World Series by getting a dominant performance from a single pitcher. Maybe they wouldn't win out over a full, 162-game season. But if one hot pitcher could give them two (or even three) victories, it significantly narrowed the gap between the clubs.

Over the long haul, the Orioles are a better team than the Mariners. They proved it during the regular season. But with Johnson pitching two of the five playoff games, the balance shifts dramatically toward Seattle. His influence on the outcome will be vastly distorted.

Johnson is 43-6 over the last three seasons. He is the most difficult pitcher to beat in all of baseball. Yes, the Orioles are 2-0 against him this season. They won all three games he started against them this year. But they're still at a distinct disadvantage. Given a choice, they'd no doubt prefer to face Orel Hershiser.

Davey Johnson said he'll probably bench Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Harold Baines and B.J. Surhoff tonight against the "Big Unit." That's 86 homers and 325 RBIs on the bench. It worked during the regular season. But this is the playoffs. If those players sit out two of the five games, the Orioles are in trouble.

Given a full seven games, the O's would have more of an opportunity to offset the Randy Johnson problem. They'd get more of a shot at Seattle's other starters. Their bullpen, the best in baseball, would have more time to assert itself.

But in five games, the Big Unit could be the big difference -- as he was when Seattle beat the Yankees in a five-game series in 1995. That Mariners' pitching staff had less ability than this year's version, but Johnson was able to carry them. He even came out of the bullpen to win the decisive fifth game in extra innings.

He'll get to start two of the five games against the O's, assuming it goes that far, and you have to like Seattle's chances. When it's over, don't be surprised if Davey Johnson is leading the cry to make it best-of-seven.

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