June 1, 2000
The Wild Card
Dump the Back Door
The Yankees and Red Sox played a great series last weekend. And while there are 159 other games in the season, those three had the kind of drama that baseball lives on: a long-standing rivalry, bred in neighborhoods, handed down from parent to child like a family heirloom, nursed by patriots in foreign cities. This is the joy of divisional rivalries, a boon of the unbalanced schedule...and a great argument for the elimination of the wild card.
If the season had ended Monday, both teams would still have made the playoffs. And that playoff entry is just as good as a division title. That's not right, for a couple of reasons.
Growing up in Seattle, I used to hate Oakland, hated them so much I wanted to go to see Oakland when they came to town, knew their players almost as well as my team's. One of the things baseball has lost in the wild-card format is being able to know and loathe the first-place team, plot their weaknesses and know just how far back your team was from them. Some fans are lost, looking at overall standings, looking at the five teams less than four games back from a wild-card berth, and tracking which divisional champ has the weakest record. It's a kind of hazy, confused interest, and there's no way it draws fans to the ballpark until maybe the last week of the season, and there's little evidence for even that.
Rivalries are good for baseball's history, and they're good for baseball's bottom line. Just like I did in my youth, fans turn out to see their teams avenge past slights, cheap losses and legendary playoff snubs. As a Giants fan, I will never forget 1993's to-the-wire, 103-win, no-playoff season, ruined by the Dodgers on its last day. For months, when I wore my Giant cap in Seattle, neutral territory to both sides, Dodger fans would taunt me with wide, smug faces. It didn't matter to them that their season had been much worse, only that they'd spoiled a division rival's playoff hopes. That's great baseball.
And no one would remember it if the Giants had still gotten into the playoffs. What incentive would the Giants have had in that last week to chase the Braves as hard as they did, working every pinch-hitting opportunity, taking an extra base on every ball into the gap? Why wouldn't they have just rested their tired rotation and gone into the playoffs healthier, without a home-field advantage but as the second-best team in the league with a chance to play for it all?
That difference, between a rivalry that's driven ticket sales for decades and a kind of oh-well playoff placation, should be reason enough. But the wild card also leads to cheap playoff entries. Let's take two teams this year who would now compete for a wild-card spot: Cincinnati and Anaheim. Cincinnati is going to play most of its games against divisional opponents with a combined record of 102-130 (.440), while Anaheim faces a division in which no one is under .500. If Anaheim manages a .550 record playing in that division, isn't that worth more than running up .550 playing the Brewers and Cubs twelve times apiece?
The fact is that the only way to create, maintain and strengthen rivalries is to ensure that something's at stake, something more valuable than a berth in the playoffs just as easily won by being somewhere near the top of the overall standings. Maybe that means re-alignment, but I'll be honest: whatever gets rid of the wild card is open for discussion with me. Ensure that divisional titles are not only a matter of pride but the only way to earn a chance at the World Series, and we can have series like those three Boston/New York games populate the late season like weeds, laden with implications and consequences. And maybe I'll be able to skip work to see if the lowly Padres can pull out just one win to keep the hated Dodgers out of the playoffs and avenge a wrong done me seven years ago.
The wild card may well bring justice to great teams stuck in a division with a greater team, but I've found that a little injustice from time to time is healthy for the game. And if righting some wrong means a solution so disastrous as the wild card, there's no choice but to endure injustice for the greater good. The divisional competition we treasure demands the elimination of the wild-card playoff berth.