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Off the deep end

An Editorial Against Pool Play

By Brian Varmecky

As reported by the Tribune Democrat, the AAABA will use pool play for this year’s tournament rather than the traditional double-elimination bracket. In the pool play, the sixteen teams will compete in four pools. Each team will play the other three entries in that pool once. The top two teams from each pool with the best record will advance to an eight-team single-elimination bracket.

I hesitate to have one of my few articles this year being so negative in tone, but I really do not like pool play. I commend the association for trying new strategies to strengthen the tournament, but I do not believe that this is a good change nor that it will have the desired benefits.

Bracket play is more equal

Pool play is a fundamentally different—and I think inferior—approach to determining a national champion. When I was a young boy, following the brackets during the week was one of the most interesting parts of the tournament. It was fun to see the team-versus-team match-ups each morning, to follow teams along their path to the finals, and to watch each day as the brackets converged towards a champion. The AAABA brackets in particular ensured that every team had the same criteria for winning the tournament: win six games before you lose two. It did not matter where in the bracket you started or which game you lost. It also ensured that no team had to play more games than the others to achieve the same result. It also meant that every single game mattered regardless of where in the bracket it took place. There were no throw away games or consolations. Every game was equally important.

Imagine some of the potential nightmare scenarios we might encounter with pool play. It is possible for a four-team pool to result in a three-way tie for first place (three teams finish 2-1 and one team is winless). The result would be that one team with a winning record and only one loss would be eliminated from the tournament. It is possible that we have a three-way for last place, as well (one team is undefeated with the remaining three tied at 1-2). The result would be that one team with a losing record and two loses would get to continue in the tournament. Both of these situations could happen in the same tournament, too, so that a 2-1 team is eliminated while a 1-2 team gets to continue playing for the championship.

With both of those possibilities in consideration, that means you could have a situation in the single-elimination quarter-finals where a two-loss team (1-2) eliminates an undefeated team (3-0) from the tournament. That undefeated team no longer has recourse to a second loss, even though their opponent has already lost twice. We could even see a runner-up team with a 3-3 record while a team at 4-1 is ranked lower in the final standings, or a 4-2 champion with a 5-1 runner-up!

Benefits may not be as great as hoped

One touted benefit from pool play is that all the teams are guaranteed at least three games in Johnstown. While that is true, I don’t think that the benefit is as great as it seems. First of all, twelve of the sixteen teams were already guaranteed three games under the bracket system. Second, the Johnstown Oldtimers are paying for the rooms and meals, so the individual teams are only paying for their travel expenses, which will be the same regardless of how many games they play. Third, it is still possible for a team to start 0-2 in the tournament. The difference this year is that rather than going back home, they have to stay in Johnstown and likely play a meaningless third game. How many fans are going to attend a game between two 0-2 teams, knowing that neither has a chance to continue? (It could happen) And what of the managers of two 2-0 teams who have to waste pitchers on an all-but-meaningless game on Wednesday? Finally—as mentioned before—a team could be eliminated from the tournament with a 2-1 record. In that case, they are actually losing a game under pool play, because they would have been given a fourth game in Johnstown (and maybe more!) under the bracket system.

The brackets gave us up to 31 games during the week. Pool play will give us 31 games during the week, as well. Since everyone is guaranteed three games and the same number of games are played, that means that the best teams (with winning records) are being asked to sacrifice their games for the sake of the worst teams (with losing records). The way I see it: four good teams are losing their second-chance at the championship.

I know these are the extreme situations that I am highlighting here, but they are in fact a possibility for the tournament. If the association’s goal is just to give teams more games to play, then keep the bracket system and include two consolation games between the winless teams on Wednesday.

Better ways to improve the tournament

One reason that tournament officials have given for implementing pool play is to attract new franchises to the tournament. I am skeptical that it will have an effect because the association’s primary deficiency in attracting is their minimal efforts to approach new franchises. As of my last interview on the topic, I was told that the association has no coordinated effort to attract new teams. Occasionally a AAABA member will casually discuss the tournament with their baseball acquaintances and encourage them to join (as happened with Boston) or occasionally a team will find information online and start an inquiry about joining (as happened with the rejected Southern Tier franchise). Yet—despite having a franchise committee—the AAABA apparently does not formally approach team or leagues about joining. It seems like their approach is to sit back and wait for inquiries. If this is still the case, then changing the structure of the tournament won’t have any effect because the only people who will know about it will be the ones who are already members of the association.

Furthermore, considering the extra money involved with housing and feeding four teams for an additional night, I think those funds would be better spent on other aspects of the tournament. For example: ensuring that every tournament field has a working scoreboard. Or, based on conversations with many managers over the years, I think quite a few would prefer to see the money spent on hiring more-qualified umpires for the games. If not that, then put the money towards further development of the association’s new website or towards creating a marketing package that could be mailed out to potential leagues around the country.

I do not fault the AAABA for trying something new and exploring options for improving the tournament, but I do not think that pool play is the right change to make, and I do not think it will produce the desired benefits. I am sure that the tournament will still be enjoyable for the teams and fans, but I hate to see the bracket tradition potentially coming to an end. Hopefully this will be a one-and-done affair and the association will move on to discovering new methods for strengthen the tournament.

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