The Wild Card just doesn’t do it for me. It takes the juice out of division races by creating a safety-net for second place teams, and it brings competitive imbalances into play.
Last weekend, the Giants entered their three-game set against the Dodgers only 1 1/2 games behind their archrivals. The series looked pretty good, but you know that as they lost two of three to the Dodgers, Giants fans couldn’t help scoreboard-watching to see how the Cubs were doing.
San Francisco is now three games behind L.A. with another match-up looming this weekend. But, it’s quite possible that this coming weekend’s series could be unraveled by the fact that the Giants are only one game behind the Cubs for the Wild Card. Would you rather see two rivals battle it out for one playoff spot? Or, would you rather see the Giants lose key games, but still have the team back into the playoffs with Cubs’ losses? I think most baseball fans would prefer the former, unless they’re from San Francisco.
Meanwhile, at Fenway, the Yankees’ victory on Friday upped their lead to 5 1/2 games, more or less ending Boston’s realistic chances of winning the AL East. Not to worry. With the Wild Card pretty much locked up, the Red Sox were still going to the playoffs. Suddenly, the juice was gone from the series’ final two games. It’s true. Why else do you think Felix Heredia and C.J. Nitkowski got into Saturday’s game?
That leaves only one unaffected chase — the AL West. Texas and Anaheim have been breathing down Oakland’s neck. Although Texas might have ruined itself by losing two to Seattle (and also by not having any good pitchers), Anaheim is only one back. If they can keep it close, the final weekend series between the Angels and A’s will be ideal. No scoreboard watching, one playoff spot. Just win, and you’re in.
With all that the Wild Card takes away from pennant races, the main question should be: does the battle for the extra playoff spot make up for it? Answer: No. Actually, it just rewards mediocrity.
Look at the NL. In addition to the Cubs and Giants, the Astros and Padres are still hanging around in the hunt for the last spot. Really, it’s hard to convince me that any of these teams actually deserve the playoffs. The Cubs have had an injury-plagued and disappointing year. The Giants are a one-hitter, one-pitcher team. The Astros don’t win when Clemens or Oswalt can’t start. As for the Padres, they can make the playoffs if you can name five players on that team. Even if you’re from San Diego.
Okay, but what about good Wild Card teams? Don’t both the Yankees and Red Sox, who will lead the AL in wins, deserve the playoffs? Wouldn’t the absence of the Wild Card have robbed us of the epic 2003 ALCS and a potential rematch in 2004?
But, if only the division champion made the playoffs, the Sox’s furious charge to catch the Yankees would have been much more intense. We could have seen Pedro and Schilling coming back on three-days rest for the season’s final week or two. What if the Yankees and Red Sox had to battle each other all year knowing that only one could go to the playoffs? Wouldn’t you rather have a whole month, or six of them, filled with unadulterated drama instead of a week’s worth of theater?
Some might say that it’s good to let as many teams as possible stay in the hunt. It keeps people interested, maybe even draws fans. Well, then you have to look at the integrity of the game.
First of all, the Wild Card isn’t fair at all because of the strength of schedule disparities among the different divisions. The expanded division schedule was developed in 2001 to make teams play their division rivals more often. This system adds legitimacy to division titles, but it detracts from the Wild Card by making teams in stronger divisions play more difficult schedules.
Then, there’s the fact that other than not being able to have home field advantage, there is no disincentive to being a Wild Card team. Once the playoffs begin, it doesn’t matter that the Cardinals have more than 105 wins, but the Cubs have a total in the low 90s. Since the Wild Card format began, the 114-win 1998 Yankees are the only team to win the World Series after having the best regular season record. Any team can squeak into the playoffs and get hot, like the 2002 Angels or last year’s Marlins.
So, what would I think is fair? Obviously, I’d like to go back to the pre-1969 days when pennants were pure and the World Series was contested between the teams with the best record in each League.
Well, that’s not going to happen, and it probably shouldn’t. Last year’s playoffs were a phenomenal success, and MLB is unlikely to roll back the postseason. The most equitable solution might be to add another playoff spot.
An additional Wild Card team could be used to create a major disincentive for not winning your division. For example, the two Wild Cards could be scheduled to play a three-game series without any travel days, in the ballpark of the team with the better record. After this series ended, the playoffs would begin with the team with the best record playing a Wild Card team that has already sapped the arms of its best pitchers.
A handicap like this would make the Wild Card a very unstable safety net. Top teams would want to avoid it like the Plague, or Jose Guillen. This would up the intensity in divisional races where both teams figure to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the likelihood of a lesser team sneaking into the postseason and getting hot on the road to a title, would be greatly reduced.
Of course, Bud Selig would be unlikely to alter a system that is proving quite profitable — unless FOX tells him to.