Wild, wild, wild card

September 29, 2011

Why is everything changing in sports? The NCAA’s conference realignment is the greediest game of musical chairs ever. The NFL had to fight through a lockout, and you better believe Roger Goodell hasn’t finished pursuing an 18 game schedule. The NBA likely won’t have a season this year. And perhaps the oldest of the major American sports, baseball, has been questioning its playoff model for the last couple of years.

Commissioners, league executives and owners are always looking for the next best thing. Sometimes it seems that they want to have the most innovative toys to show off to their colleagues.

But why does baseball—in the midst of one of the most dramatic season endings in a while— have the itch to change it up too?

Since the Wild Card’s inception in 1995, which was meant to reinvigorate fan interest after the 1994 labor strike, the last month of the season has been a lot more exciting. It’s also the reason the 1997 Marlins, 2002 Angels, and the 2004 Red Sox won the World Series. Most importantly, it’s also the reason why two playoff spots are being decided on the very last day of the season.

Despite its success, there remain some in Major League Baseball that want to change the playoff system. The most popular alternative would be to introduce another wild card in each league and increase the total number of playoff teams to ten.

If there is one case to make against MLB’s playoff format is that there aren’t enough teams that make the postseason. The NBA and NHL each have space for twice as many teams, while the NFL has 12.

A league where half the teams make the playoffs? Might as well give everyone a trophy. MLB’s exclusiveness is good. The postseason doesn’t drag on for two months, and the dramatics are packed into a much smaller time frame. In baseball, the regular season actually matters.

Last night was a great example. With two Wild Cards per league, last night’s drama doesn’t exist. The Red Sox and the Rays would both be in the playoffs. Same with the Braves and Cardinals.

Sure, the Angels would’ve made things interesting as of a couple of days ago, but I like two teams fighting for one spot, instead of three going for two.

Expand the postseason and Dan Johnson’s game-tying, home run, with the Rays a strike away from the offseason, becomes just another home run. Jonathan Papelbon’s ninth inning implosion is just another blown save. Instead, these are classic moments that live in fans’ memories for years to come.

The best part of this whole thing? Red Sox fans rooting fervently for the Yankees. I’ll never let them live that down.

Also, how would a tiebreaker even work if three teams tied for two spots? It might take longer to figure that one out than the entire American League Division Series.

Let’s just keep it simple. It’s worked for 17 years and I’m pretty sure it’ll keep working. I know I may sound like someone afraid of change, but I’m not. I’m not a baseball purist who despises the Wild Card—in fact, I like change. But it doesn’t make sense to leave the happy medium MLB Commissioner Bud Selig found in the ‘90s. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it cool.

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