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August 17, 2004
Not Wild About It
Last week, Dayn Perry put the two leagues' wild-card races under the microscope and did his usual great job with them. Dayn is the recent addition to BP whose work I enjoy the most, and that's saying a lot given that we've added Steven Goldman and Jim Baker in the last year.
I appreciate that the wild-card races look like they're going to be interesting, what with three teams in each league bunched like baby chicks huddled under their mother's wing. (At the close of play Sunday, there were actually three-team ties for first in each race.) I just don't think we realize what we're missing.
To get where I'm going with this, I have to make certain assumptions. It actually wouldn't matter where we put the Brewers, but for the sake of this article, let's assume that Fay Vincent had gotten his way back in 1992, and the Braves and Cubs (and Cardinals and Reds) switched divisions; that the two expansions distributed teams pretty much as they are now, and that the Brewers stayed in the AL.
I think the races this morning would be even better. The Yankees would still be running away with the AL East, with the Red Sox and Indians pretty much done. In the AL West, though, we'd have four teams--the A's, Angels, Rangers and Twins--within 1.5 games of each other, all fighting not for three spots, but for one division title. Over in the NL, the surprising Braves would have a four-game lead on the improved Cubs--with all the attendant subplots of Greg Maddux trying to beat out his former team for his former former team--while the Cardinals would have a comfortable lead on the Dodgers in the NL West.
At first, that may not seem like much improvement, but what we'd lose in the NL--basically a bunch of .550 teams trying to get to .560--would be more than made up for by the creation of a four-team race in the AL and the emergence of a real race in the NL East. I can't emphasize that AL West situation enough; that would be a race of historic proportions, and it doesn't actually exist because of the 1994 changes.
So much of the MLB propaganda about the wild card has focused on the increased opportunities for fans of teams barely above .500 to cling to the hope that they can reach the playoffs. It's a mindset that baseball has borrowed from the leagues in which the regular season is largely a meaningless prelude to interminable playoffs. What MLB, and the wild card's fans in the media, have never adequately accounted for is the damage that the wild card has done to the regular season.
In almost every year since 1995, we've been denied a great race for a division title between two good teams because of the realignment and the wild card. Last year, what could have been a classic Yankee/Red Sox September lacked drama because the Sox were well-positioned for the wild-card slot. In '02, the Angels and A's won 202 games between them in what should have been a great AL West race, but because of the wild card, their seven September matchups were more about seeding than survival. The NL West, in a wild-card-free world, would have featured three teams within 2.5 games of each other, all fighting for a division title. On two occasions, games played on the last day of the regular season to determine a division title were reduced to shams, as both teams had secured playoff berths regardless of the outcome.
The benefit of the wild card is a marginal one, and entirely tied to lowered standards. This year, for example, I guess the teams that benefit are the Red Sox, Indians, Giants and Padres. Those teams all have a better chance of making the playoffs, and will theoretically make more money because of it. (I say "theoretically" because two of those teams have maxed out demand pretty well, and the third is playing in a new park and shouldn't have a demand issue.) They don't have a better playoff shot because they're good, but because MLB decided to lower the bar.
Baseball shouldn't be about lowering the bar. It should be about raising the bar, about making the statement that, unlike the other sports, its regular season has meaning.
This should actually lead to more turnover at the top, not less. For one thing, it creates more competition among the top teams. The Yankee dynasty that has motivated so many of the changes in MLB's operating structure might never have happened if MLB hadn't made it easier for the Yankees to make the playoffs in the 1990s. Under the old system, the Yankees would have missed the playoffs in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 2000. Think Joe Torre would still be a Hall of Fame candidate if that had happened?
Not allowing a lowered standard for playoff berths would also encourage teams to undertake real rebuilding processes, not the half-hearted ones we see today. Last Friday, Jonah Keri laid out the haphazard way in which the Mets have run their franchise for the past decade. Without the wild card as a carrot, wouldn't they be a much stronger team today, having been forced to build for excellence and not mediocrity?
The increased emphasis on postseason performance is another deleterious effect of the wild card. The Division Series, the first round of playoffs created by the wild card, is merely an exercise in seeing whose body of work over 162 games can be fouled in the course of five. Whatever drama is created, whatever ratings are garnered, come at the expense of the game's soul. It's an NBA mentality, where making the playoffs isn't a big deal but winning a number of short series in a row is.
Baseball's signature edge over the other sports is a meaningful regular season that, for 93 years, produced stand-alone champions. With smaller divisions and the wild card, baseball has reduced both the actual and the perceived value of those championships, while inflating the value of a vanishingly small number of games.
That's how most people end up thinking more highly of, say, the Florida Marlins than the Oakland A's.
I don't expect that the wild card is going anywhere, at least not until the inevitable expansion to 32 teams. I just would like to see an acknowledgement that there have been significant costs involved, costs that go to the heart of what baseball is, what has separated it from the other major sports. The term "pennant race" has virtually no meaning any longer; all true races between great teams are for seeding, and the remaining ones are merely for a playoff spot.