Monday, October 15, 2012

Why I Loathe Wild Cards in Major League Baseball

Cardinals players celebrating their victory over the Nationals, 12 October 2012

Last Friday night I said goodbye to the 2012 Major League Baseball playoffs. Despite what some might think, this has nothing to do with the absence therein of my beloved Phillies after their run of 5 consecutive NL East titles ended ingloriously with their mediocrity-defining 81-81 season. No — it had everything to do with the St. Louis Cardinals' defeat of the Washington Nationals to advance to the National League Championship Series.

Don't get me wrong. I have no special love, or even like, for the Nationals, either now or in their previous incarnation as the Montreal Expos. Indeed, Vice President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo is near the bottom of my list of favored professional sports executives. Rather, it has everything to do with principle  a word MLB only seems to invoke when the issue is gambling and the continued banishment of Pete Rose from the Hall of Fame. What baseball has done with their playoff structure, I maintain, has irrevocably harmed the sport by cheapening the 6 month long regular season, a veritable marathon that effectively winnows the wheat from the chaff by exposing teams, who might play well for lengths of time, to be the flawed pretenders they actually are. As it is now, teams seemingly buried in late July can, by trading for a rented star, get hot over the last 50 games of the season, slip into the playoff picture via one of two wild card slots allotted per league, and ultimately be crowned the "world champion" of baseball. Baseball, after all, is a game of inches and often of luck, both of which tend to even out over the long haul. But over a 7-game series  let alone the infernal 5-game series and ridiculous, one-game wild card playoff  such "bounces" rarely even out. After all, the difference between a 100-win team and a 90-win team is only a matter of 6.2%, which often amounts to a hill of beans in a short series.

As a result, while so many Americans saw the Cardinals' elimination-defying comeback win over the Nationals as a thrilling example of the sport's unpredictability, I saw it as the triumph of a playoff-seasoned club, who didn't even belong in the playoffs, over a young, inexperienced team that nevertheless had managed the best record in the National League. The Cardinals, after all, only won 88 games, the 5th-best record in a 16-team league, 9 games behind the division champ Reds. As such, they slipped in as the second wild card team, having won 6 less games than the Atlanta Braves. Even worse, their one-game wild card game against the Braves was marred by a ludicrous infield fly ruling  I have never, in my almost 50 years of watching baseball, seen such a call on a ball more than 50 feet deep in the outfield grass  that at least potentially cut short a Braves' comeback rally. And so they advanced to defeat the Nationals.

A little history: from 1904-1968, the two major leagues (not counting the upstart Federal League in 1914-15) had no divisions, and the champion of each 8- or 10-team (expansion occurred in 1961 in the AL and 1962 in the NL) league met in the World Series to determine the world champion. In my view, such a practice was both elegant and fair. To be sure, the clearly better team did not always win the series (the 1931 Philadelphia A's and 1954 Cleveland Indians come immediately to mind), but at least the vanquished teams still were crowned with their respective leagues' pennants. This was still the scenario when I started following baseball back in 1964 (for my recollections of the heart-wrenching final days of that season, see here). The Phillies, due to their historic collapse, finished tied for 2nd place, and hence had to stay home to watch the Cardinals defeat the Yanks in Mickey Mantle's final World Series. And that is how it should be. Frankly, the Phillies didn't deserve another chance. With the partition of each league into two divisions in conjunction with further expansion in 1969, a second round of playoffs was added. So far, so good. When the AL expanded to 14 teams in 1977, they kept the two-division format. In 1995, however, two years after the NL likewise expanded to 14 teams, baseball decided to take a leaf from the playbook of the NFL, and added a single wild card team, and concomitantly another round of playoffs, to its postseason schedule.

The results have been dramatic. In the 12 years from 2000-2011, four wild card teams have won the World Series, which amounts to a higher percentage than all the actual division winners in those years (4 out of 12 versus 8 out of 36). These include not only such famous teams as the 2004 Boston Red Sox and last year's Cardinals, but the "mighty" Cardinals of 2006, who won despite having posted a mediocre 83-78 record that, in itself, should have given the clueless Bud Selig pause. In the American League, three wild card teams have won the pennant, whereas the team with the league's best record has won only four times. In the National League, the situation is even more dramatic. Only once (the 2004 Cardinals) has the team with the best record won the NL pennant in the last 12 years. In that same stretch of time, six  count 'em, SIX  wild card teams have proceeded to the World Series. If that doesn't make a mockery of the regular season, I don't know what does. Granted, MLB is not as ridiculously generous in doling playoff spots as the NBA and NHL are. Thankfully (hopefully?) I will never have to mourn over the prospect of an 8th-seeded team like the 2011-12 LA Kings winning the World Series. Nevertheless, baseball, if it wants to make its grueling 162-game schedule anything more than a vast preseason, ought to do something to ensure that only the most deserving of teams get the chance to play for the championship.

What to do? My proposal is simple, elegant, and fair. Next year the Houston Astros, members of the National League since their inception as the Colt 45's back in 1962, are scheduled to move to the American League (remember, I still hold a grudge against the NFL for moving the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts, and Pittsburgh Steelers to the AFC following the merger with the old AFL back in the '60s). The result will be that both leagues will now have 15 teams, which means, among other things, that there will always be at least one interleague series going on throughout the season (the very thought of which raises my blood pressure to unsafe levels). I say, leave the leagues as they are, and regroup each into two divisions, the champions of which would play for the league pennant, the way they did from 1969-1993.

I am well aware that this is a solution that stands absolutely no chance of being implemented, for two reasons, neither of which could ever cause me to relinquish so much as a rat's behind. The first of these is money, of course. More playoff series means more money and exposure for the league. More playoff teams means more cities with fan bases ripe to spend their hard-earned money on officially licensed team merchandise. 

The second reason is fan interest. For better or worse, most fans don't really care about the philosophy of awarding baseball titles, and casual fans often get their interest piqued only when their home team is contending for a playoff spot (real fans, of course, care about the regular season all the way to the end, no matter how far out of the chase their team is; over the years I have had lots of practice in this regard; I am a Phillies fan, after all). More fans, more excitement, more money. That, in a nutshell, is baseball's primary concern. It just is not my concern. And so I suppose I will have to assume my customary mantle, that of a grumpy contrarian, as I long for a season when my Phils will once again deserve to compete for what, to me, is the most important sports championship of all.


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