I personally am not opposed to the concept of the wild card, or to any format that adds more teams to the playoffs in Major League Baseball. Even with the addition of a second wild card team, there are still far fewer teams in the playoffs than in some other sports. With a much longer season, twice as many games as in basketball and hockey, only ten teams make the playoffs, compared to sixteen, and two of them are eliminated before you have time to get that second beer from the fridge (well, at least me, since I pretty much can only drink one before I start to doze). What kind of reward is that for teams that have slogged through 162 games, with every player saying that they are aching in some way by the middle of August? In other sports, very mediocre teams, sometimes with less than a .500 record, make the post-season, while in baseball, you can easily with a winning percentage of, say, .560, 91 wins, and not play October baseball.
So, let’s start with the premise that the Wild Card is a good idea, with two teams being twice as good as one. It keeps fans more engaged, with more teams to actively, passionately root for because of the possibility of making the post-season. Look how many teams have been in contention, particularly in the American League, through the middle of September, with teams getting hot and getting cold, but leaving fans burning for that extra spot. That keeps ownership more engaged as there will obviously be lots more people in the seats. It keeps management more engaged, as more teams have the chance for that elusive extra spot. I kept reading how it caused a disruption in the typical deadline trading frenzy; some teams couldn’t decide whether to sell or buy. I can pretty much assume that it keeps players more engaged and focused; they have a lot more at stake than I do when I play co-ed softball on Sunday. Not that I think that any player should need any incentive other than personal pride to play hard every game, but I am sure the lure of post-season glory, not to mention a healthy financial payoff, drives them to excel.
I don’t like, however, the format, a one-game playoff. I realize many things in life, in sports, in baseball are not “fair”. When the National League West faces the American League Central during inter-league play, a roll of this year’s dice might have the Dodgers hosting the Tigers and the Giants visiting the Royals. Is that equivalent? If you were fans of the Astros and Rangers, would you rather play the Cardinals or Reds this year? Is that fair? Well, no, but some things, such as which team is going to be good this year, and which won’t, and which clubs will turn out to be good and bad next year, when the schedules are made (already released for 2016) long before off-season trades and free agent signings, cannot be predicted. As I said, it is a roll of the dice. But I don’t like the one-game format. It forces teams to manipulate their rotations, put a price on which is more important, perhaps winning game 162 just to get into the Wild Card or hoping you do and saving your ace, giving that extra day rest to advance past round one. Of course, if you use him at that point, your ace will not be ready to go until game three of the next round, but that is a different matter. It is all strategy, which is why many people prefer the National League pitcher as hitter structure rather than the designated hitter.
But the real reason that I don’t like the one-game playoff has nothing to do with the ownership or management or even the players, the decision about resting your ace or shoving him out there on two days rest just to get into the wild card game. The reason I don’t like it, is simply because it provides a crappy no-reward, season-ending finale to the fans, particularly those who support the team that does not host this one-game death match.
As I sat down to watch the Cubs/Pirates game on television last month, I wondered which of these teams, would host that battle. It was quite a series, quite a preview of that one-game loser-go-home we will see tonight. My point is with the Cubs will playing the Pirates in Pittsburgh, with it being a one-game affair, Cubs fans, after supporting their team all year, and not having a post-season game in seven years, will have no opportunity to cheer for their team in Wrigley if they in fact lose to the higher-seeded team. If the Amazin’ Mets had not turned on all cylinders and pulled away in the NL East, and maybe, maybe gotten the second seed, their fans too would potentially have no opportunity to root at Citi Field. Does this seem right?
The reasons to keep the WC series a one-gamer include the length of the season, and the seasonal changes that can make for some pretty cold conditions. I understand that, as I go to a zillion games at AT&T which often, even or especially during the “summer”, feel like arctic conditions, bundling up with beanies and twelve layers of clothing. There is a way to deal with this. When Commissioner Manfred asks, I will tell him my plan. Next month, I’ll share my plan with you too.