I’d certainly like to know what sort of homage the state of California paid to the baseball gods this year, because the Golden State has both of the compelling playoff races this fall.
Anaheim and Oakland are tied atop the American League West standings, while San Francisco and Los Angeles are neck and neck in the race for the National League wild card. These battles evince why — despite the valid criticisms of baseball purists — the wild card is, on the whole, great for the game of baseball.
If there were no wild card, the Giants and the Dodgers — two of the greatest rivals in the game — would be playing meaningless games this week. Sure, bragging rights would be at stake, but little else would matter.
That’s because, at 92-57, the defending world champion Arizona Diamondbacks are seven games in front of both squads and have the division all but sealed up. The presence of the wild card allows the Giants’ home run king Barry Bonds to step up to the plate in clutch situations (even though most teams will likely walk him, as the Dodgers and their ace closer Eric Gagne did in the ninth two nights ago) and shine under a national spotlight.
Upon season’s end, one very good baseball team will miss the playoffs by the narrowest of margins, and the other will be given new life in the second season. That both squads have a chance at the playoffs has generated significant interest. And that is good for baseball, and if it’s good for baseball, it’s good for us fans. Not to mention Bud Selig. OK, so in spite of that last comment, the wild card has a positive influence on the game.
The benefits of the wild card are also evident in the Oakland-Anaheim race for A.L. West supremacy. Both clubs are one-half game behind the New York Yankees for the best record in the American League, and deserve to make the playoffs. They both will.
Each will also finish with a better record than the Minnesota Twins, who at 87-63 are the only A.L. team to have actually clinched the division, due to the Central’s relative weakness. The A’s and Angels are both likely to eclipse the 100-win mark, a testament to the great baseball each has played during the stretch run, and in fact, most of the season. For one of these teams not to make the postseason would seem unfair, especially since Minnesota will finish with fewer victories than both Oakland and Anaheim.
Indeed, one of the main reasons we have a wild card is that the Giants won 103 games in 1993, but finished second to the Braves in the N.L. West (that was the last year of only two divisions in each league) and missed the playoffs, despite winning six more games than the East Division champion Philadelphia Phillies.
Critics of the wild card view the A.L. West battle under a different lens. They claim that the race would be exponentially more dramatic if the loser got nothing. All the teams are fighting over now is the right to say they were division champs and avoid playing a stronger team in the first round of the playoffs. Purists say the suspense and drama of a true pennant race is gone. They are 100 percent correct in this respect.
Philosophically speaking, I align myself with the purists’ view. The wild card has its drawbacks, and the “loser-go-home” scenario of a non-wild card race is very appealing. Despite these objections, however, the wild card draws more fans to the ballpark by virtue of keeping more teams in the playoff hunt and adding good teams to October baseball.
And that is good for the game.