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Hate The Wild Card? Let's Play Two

Call me a baseball purist, but I still don’t like the wild card.

That’s why I want each league to have not one but two.

Sounds crazy? Bear with me.

When Bud Selig unveiled the wild card, along with baseball’s three-division structure in 1994, it broke a long-standing tradition in the game: to play in the postseason, you had to win your league or division.

No doubt the owners and networks love the expanded playoffs – more games to sell at premium prices. Those four-out-of-seven packets of excitement made pro basketball the sport of the ‘80s, and baseball wanted its own version, its October Madness. Unlike in basketball, however, seven baseball games say nothing about which team is better. Baseball’s beauty lies in its pennant races, the long slow accretion of results that fill a summer and establish a team’s true worth. It is a game ill-suited to the short series because of the overriding importance of pitching. Yet baseball has chosen to emphasize its short season at the expense of its long one.

Winning a pennant used to be the mark of success. Playing in the postseason was the reward for a great year, but fans and players alike knew that the result could be quirky. Players dreamed of being in a World Series; winning was an afterthought. Fans of a Series loser could comfort themselves with memory of the season-long victory over their everyday rivals.

Today, all a division title means is that you’ve made the playoffs.

The wild card is supposed to keep more teams in contention throughout the season, giving second-place teams something to fight for. But it can eliminate excitement as well: Three times in the thirteen-year wild-card era, the season has ended with two teams tied for first after playing each other during the final weekend. This should be the most exciting possibility of all, but since both teams had qualified for the playoffs, there was little drama, and the tie was broken on the basis of their season series.

True, wild card teams have to play without home-field advantage in the first two playoff rounds. This is only a minor drawback; wild-cards have made it to the World Series in each of the last six seasons.

But there is a way to restore full meaning to the 162-game schedule, and give teams a significant incentive to win their division rather than be happy just to make the playoffs. Tom Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau has suggested that instead of one wild-card team in each league, there should be two – and that these two teams should face each other in a one-game playoff to determine who moves on to the divisional series.

At first glance, this idea seems to carry wild-card madness to new heights. Two teams instead of one? And a one-game playoff between them? What could be more random? But look deeper: Today, there is only a very slight difference between winning your division and winning the wild-card race. Under this new structure, winning your division is of paramount importance. You’ll do anything you can to stay out of that one-game win-or-go-home situation. Late-season games against your division rivals become vital and electric.

Next week, the Cubs take their shrinking Central lead into the first of three games at Wrigley against second-place Milwaukee. The two will close the season with three more against each other at Miller Field. High drama? Maybe not. The Brewers have a three-game lead in the wild-card race, so while they’d like to catch the Cubs, the Phillies’ results are just as important to them, and the Cubs have the wild-card as a fall-back position in case of an epic collapse. Boston is currently in the midst of its final series against Tampa Bay, who lead them by a half-game. But the Red Sox have a seven-game edge over Minnesota for the wild card, so they’re fairly likely to make the playoffs whether they pass the Rays or not.

If the two-wild-card proposal were in effect, these games would be crucial, don’t-miss affairs. As things stand, they’re not much different from any other game this September.

Everybody benefits from this proposal. Major League Baseball should embrace it, because it lets them sell another postseason game (not a whole series, which would be overkill), while expanding the race for the postseason one rung further down the standings. Give the home-field advantage to the wild-card team with the better record, and you increase the number of meaningful regular-season games, which should increase excitement, attendance, and TV ratings. And purists will embrace the return of the pennant race, through the enhanced importance of finishing first.

As for the unfairness of the wild-card teams seeing their seasons come down to a one-game playoff, or the problems they’d face in subsequent series because of the extra travel and the pitching disruptions, tough. Next time, win your damn division.

I don’t see any downside to the idea. Are you listening, Bud?

Jeff Neuman's columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday. Follow him on Twitter @NeumanJeff. His collected golf writing and blogging can be found at www.neumanprose.com.

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