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The meaning of home-field advantage

For the first time in World Series history, Game 1 belongs to the team with the best record
MLB.com

Home-field advantage in the World Series can tip the scales toward the champion. But for the first time in modern Series history, which dates back to 1903, the baseball world didn't know until well into October this year who would have that edge.

MLB's new Collective Bargaining Agreement, ratified this past winter, declared that the All-Star Game would no longer decide which league enjoys home-field advantage in the Fall Classic, as it had since 2003. For the first time in 113 World Series, that privilege now goes to the team with the best regular-season record among the Fall Classic participants.

Home-field advantage in the World Series can tip the scales toward the champion. But for the first time in modern Series history, which dates back to 1903, the baseball world didn't know until well into October this year who would have that edge.

MLB's new Collective Bargaining Agreement, ratified this past winter, declared that the All-Star Game would no longer decide which league enjoys home-field advantage in the Fall Classic, as it had since 2003. For the first time in 113 World Series, that privilege now goes to the team with the best regular-season record among the Fall Classic participants.

It's hard to imagine now with all the planning and buildup for the World Series, but the three-man National Commission -- consisting of American League President Ban Johnson, National League President Harry Pulliam and Reds owner Garry Herrmann -- determined the opening site of the first six World Series from 1903-09. After that, a coin toss between the owners of the two pennant-winning clubs was introduced to select the host team for Game 1 from 1910-24, with one deviation in 1916 when Ebbets Field wasn't ready to host the Series. That sounds like fodder for a live broadcast special in 2017, but back then, the result wasn't revealed until the following morning's newspaper. Another coin was flipped to decide the host of Game 7, if the Series got that far.

The 2-3-2 game format in place today arrived with little fanfare after the 1924 Series. Landis announced that the first, second and sixth games that year would be hosted by the American League champion, with the coin flip remaining in play for Game 7. The coin was scrapped for good a year later when the informal 2-3-1 became the rigid 2-3-2. The new plan, a brainchild of Brooklyn Dodgers Owner Charles Ebbets, was instituted to reduce travel headaches and avoid double hotel bookings for the competing clubs. 

But the calendar still decided who would enjoy home-field advantage for nearly eight decades. The American and National League champs alternated as hosts in even and odd years, with the system flipping twice: once in 1935, when a large convention in Chicago forced the Series to begin in Detroit, and again after the 1994 players' strike canceled that year's Fall Classic. Emergency diversions to a 3-4 system were also made in 1918, '43 and '45 in an effort to reduce wartime travel.

Everything changed in 2002, though, when the All-Star Game famously ended in a 7-7 tie after 11 innings. In response, Commissioner Bud Selig declared that, beginning in 2003, the league that won the Midsummer Classic would host the World Series, giving way to the "This Time It Counts" era. 

"There's a lot on the line now," said Michael Young, who in 2006, the fourth year under Selig's system, earned the All-Star Game MVP Award and home-field advantage for the AL with a game-winning triple. "Somebody's going to benefit big time from the win."

Whether this change improved the game's summer showcase is up for debate, but it may have tipped the scales come autumn: nine of the 14 teams that enjoyed home-field rights from the Midsummer Classic went on to win the World Series in the fall.

Video: Red Sox win 2013 World Series at Fenway Park

Conventional wisdom states that being at home would prove most vital in a Game 7 scenario. After all, everything is on the line, and the combatants are locked in a 3-games-to-3 duel. But the truth is that home field, statistically speaking, has had little to no effect on the sport's ultimate pressure cooker. 

"I don't really believe in the home-field advantage," says Albert Pujols, who played in three World Series from 2001-16. "I would say it doesn't matter because when the playoffs come around, everybody really tries to win every at-bat. It's not that you don't do that during the season, but it's a different atmosphere. When [the Cardinals] went to Boston [in 2004], we played great the first game and we battled the second game, but who knows if it's always going to be the same thing."

Although the 2004 Fall Classic ended in a four-game Red Sox sweep of Pujols' Cardinals, home teams have gone an even 18-18 in World Series Game 7s since Landis experimented with the 2-3-2 format in 1924. The Cubs' dramatic Game 7 victory at Cleveland's Progressive Field last autumn served as a perfect case study. After all, it's hard to imagine a more raucous home-field advantage than Cleveland's after Rajai Davis hit his game-tying home run off Aroldis Chapman in the bottom of the eighth. But somehow, the long-suffering North Siders (with a little assist from Mother Nature) found a way to overcome it.

Instead, it seems that home-field advantage is more influential in how a team starts a World Series than how it finishes. Teams have posted a combined .614 winning percentage while hosting the first two games of the Fall Classic, and those that have won the first two games at home have gone on to win the Series nearly 79 percent of the time in the 2-3-2 era. Whoever hosts second has an ample opportunity to strike back in "their house," even if they lose the first two, but the momentum the first host gets has often proved too hard to overcome. The chart on page 207 depicts game-by-game records for the host side from 1924-2016.

The numbers above only tell part of the story. Yes, friendly confines do matter in the World Series. But the teams that have enjoyed that advantage never truly earned it -- until now. Remember, this October marks the first time that the team that gets to host those first two crucial games is based solely upon regular-season merits. No longer will home-field advantage be determined by whether it's an even or odd year, or who won an exhibition game in July. 

For comparison's sake, the best regular-season team has held home-court advantage in the NBA Finals since 1949, and the Presidents' Trophy winner has hosted Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals since 1985. Baseball, in this regard, is finally catching up.

An arbitrary hosting system created a significant starting advantage for nearly a century's worth of World Series. Now, with the better regular-season team finally holding the cards, it will be fascinating to see if that advantage grows even stronger. 

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.

Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros