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Sports commentary: Wild care wiles

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Baseball's powers that be got it right

By Mike Forster

  They did a good job.

By "they," I mean those people who restructured Major League Baseball's playoff system.

By "good job," I refer to the addition of an extra wild card in both the American and National League mixes.

First, some background.

At the start of the season, with little fanfare, MLB announced that at the end of the year, each league would have five playoff participants.

Since moving to the three-division structure in 1994, the playoffs consisted of four teams in each league:  the three division champions, plus the "wild card."  The wild card was the non-divisional champ with the best won-lost record.

The wild card would be treated pretty well, for not having won anything.  For instance, let's say the Red Sox were the wild card and the Yankees had the best record in the American League.  The Red Sox would play a best-of-five series against the second-best divisional champ, while the Yankees would play the third-best divisional champ.

That's because it was deemed improper for the wild card to open against a same-division rival.

Because of that nuance, because the wild card got a fairly even shake and because the wild cards were usually quite good, they often went on to win the World Series.  A recent example of that was St. Louis winning it last year.

The new rule does three things.  First, it expands the number of playoff teams.  More on that later.

Second, it pits the two wild-card teams in a one-game playoff, so the wild card holder has to punch its way to equitable treatment.  

Third, the wild card faces the top dog in the league in the opener, no matter any intra-divisional tangencies.

So, the surviving team will likely have used its ace pitcher in the wild-card one-gamer, meaning it will be somewhat diminished.

Then, it gets to meet the league's powerhouse team in the opener.

All of that should mean much longer odds for any wildcard entrants.

And, of course, it means enhanced revenues for all parties involved.  Well, there's no surprise there.

But, let's suspend sarcastic credulity for a minute and probe how this development might be beneficial to the fan.

I see it being good on a couple of fronts.  First, it adds intrigue and suspense to divisional races.  Remember that Yankee-Red Sox example?  In the past, Red Sox fans would be fairly content with earning the wild card spot, even if the Sawks finished a couple of games behind the hated Yanks.

Now, such a scenario puts you into the one-game playoff situation.  You now have a 50-50 chance of seeing your team's season end on a premature note.

In essence, getting the wild card is OK, but not great.  And that extends beyond mere bragging rights.  It's a Get out of Jail Free card, but certainly not a trip to the Boardwalk.

Second, take a look at how many teams are in the hunt.  Each team that has a chance means that many more fans who are still following the sport.

As I write this, it appears that Washington, San Francisco  and Cincinnati have locked down division titles in the National League.

But, Atlanta, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Arizona are well in the hunt for a wild-card berth.

In the American League, the race for the wild-card spots are just as competitive.

I point to the senior circuit, however, for a reason:  If the league hadn't been changed from two into three divisions (which drove the need for the wild card), it would be all over.  

The Nats (who used to be the Expos) would have a 14-game lead over St. Louis.

In the NL West, the Reds would hold a nearly insurmountable six-game edge on the Braves.

In the old days, this is the time of year when teams with big leads rested their stars while the also-rans took a look at fresh-faced prospects.  In other words, it wasn't a great time to be a fan, the occasional to-the-wire race notwithstanding.

Now, there's a good reason to check out a game just about every night.

I'll admit, I was opposed to the wild card idea when it first came out.

I'll admit.  I was wrong.

 

*****

The bummer for me is that it both the Cards and Phillies are in the running for that last wild-card spot in the NL.  

It'd have been nice to see Pittsburgh grab it.