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
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.