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Playoff `advantage' really a disadvantage

AT SOME POINT in the future, after baseball has had enough time to tinker with the game - and let's face it, 125 years just isn't long enough to work the kinks out - they'll probably get it right. They'll cure the game's imperfections.

Like that sorry business with the designated hitter.And labor problems.

Umpires.

Marge Schott.

Pete Rose.

Organ music.

Realignment (anyone who can explain the problem here, please call).

We just need to be patient. These things take time. Take the playoffs, for instance. Baseball still hasn't got this thing figured out; they still don't know how to set up postseason play properly. But give them another hundred years or so, and they'll do it. Your great-grandkids will be grateful.

This business of a five-game series in the opening round needs work. Let's see if we've got this straight: They play 162 games in the regular season - and then they're supposed to determine the rightful entrants for the league championship series in five games?

"I don't like the five-game series," Giants second baseman Jeff Kent told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It is a bunch of bull hockey. It is too short a series to have an edge. Why play 162 games?"

Precisely. And who needs more bull hockey? They're playing two separate seasons here - a 162-game marathon, which rewards deep pitching staffs and consistent offense, and a five-game sprint, which favors teams with two or three strong pitchers.

The problem with the five-game series is that it's not a seven-game series. In other words, it lacks two games, if you follow.

It gets complicated.

To review: The team assigned three home games must play the first two games on the road. Some home-field advantage. If that team loses the first two games on the road, it faces the daunting task of winning three straight games. Since when does a home-field advantage consist of beginning a series on the road?

"The home-field advantage is a bunch of crap," said Kent. "It is too short a series to have any type of edge. What happens is you make one mistake and that becomes the turning point."

The five-game series favors the team that begins the series at home, and here again baseball has created a mess. Does baseball choose to reward the teams with the best regular-season records by giving them the so-called home-field advantage in the playoffs? No, it doesn't choose anybody. It determines playoff matchups before the season ever begins. It's luck of the draw.

Atlanta, the team with the best record in all of baseball, got to play its first two games at home, but the traditional home-field advantage (more games at home) was given to Houston (not that it mattered, as it turned out).

Baltimore, the team with the second best record in baseball, opened the playoffs with two games in Seattle.

That 162-game season they played - what was that all about?

The Giants won their division, but they played their first two playoff games in Florida against a division runner-up. The Marlins, with its strong pitching staff, beat the Giants 3-zip.

If the Giants had won their series with the Marlins, they would have been given the home-field advantage over the Braves in the league championship series - with four games played in San Francisco, including the first two.

Those 101 games the Braves won during the regular season apparently were worth nothing.

Baseball plays the equivalent of nearly two NBA seasons, but somehow this isn't enough to earn a home-field advantage. For that matter, the entire playoff schedule, from the first round to the World Series, is determined before the season is even played.

Message to Major League Baseball: This is not a Rubik's Cube. There is a simple solution. There are plenty of examples out there of how to do this thing right. When the Utah Jazz produced the best regular-season record in the Western Conference last season, they were automatically awarded the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, until they reached the finals against Chicago, which had the best record in all of the NBA.

This is the way it's done in the NBA. Ditto for the NFL.

But be patient. Baseball will get it right someday. The first 100 years are always the most difficult.