King Kaufman makes the standard complaint about how the wild card in baseball has ruined what would have been a great pennant race between the A’s and Angels.
The wild card strikes again. In the wild-card era, which began in 1994, a great pennant race is simply not possible. In order to have one, you have to have two great teams, and the loser has to go home. Otherwise you’re left with lesser teams stumbling toward the finish — witness the wild-card race between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants in the National League — or great teams, assured of a playoff spot, merely jockeying for a better seeding. Not exactly riveting stuff.
The way baseball works now, with the best second-place club in each league making the playoffs as the wild card, the best we can hope for is the second- and third-best teams in the league fighting it out. That may be what we have. In fact, one could argue that at the moment, the A’s and Angels are the two top teams in the A.L., better than the more consistent but not as hot New York Yankees, who had the same record as the Angels Monday morning.
But the other part of the recipe is missing. The punishment for failure must be death (in the sporting sense), or the games won’t have enough on the line to provide the kind of drama that baseball spent more than a century teaching us to expect. Barring an epic collapse by one of them, and a miracle finish by the Seattle Mariners or Boston Red Sox, the A’s and Angels are both going to survive and make the playoffs, regardless of what happens in their series this week.
I’m tired of this complaint. Let’s not forget that the concept of divisions is itself artificial, dating back to 1969. We could go back to the way baseball once was by getting rid of divisions and just taking the two league champions as was the way for nearly 70 years. That’d give us a hell of a race in the American League as well as a battle between the Braves and the D-backs in the Senior Circuit.
But with the league expansions in 1962 and 1969, breaking the leagues into divisions made sense. A geographical division – even if Atlanta was in the West while St. Louis and Chicago were in the East – saved on travel costs, promoted rivalries, and gave more teams “faith and hope”, to coin a phrase. And sometimes, like in the American League in 1976, having divisions created pennant races instead of obviating them. Had there been no divisions, the Yankees would have won the pennant by 8.5 games over the Royals. With the divisions in place, we got the Royals-A’s race, with the upstarts holding off the five-time winners by 2.5 games.
Once you accept that the concept of divisions is artificial, what’s so hard about swallowing the wild card? Kaufman may sneer about the Dodgers and Giants “stumbling towards the finish”, but I daresay that their fans are interested in what happens. Why is that race, which will go down to the wire and in which the penalty is “death”, any less compelling?
Kaufman says that only an “epic collapse” plus a surge by either Boston or Seattle can shake things up in the American League. But the reason why the AL West has come down to two teams with the loser getting the wild card consolation prize is because we’ve already seen a huge collapse by the Bosox and Mariners, who were leading the West by several games when August started, plus an incredible surge by the A’s and Angels. Had the Mariners had the good taste to wait another 30 days before falling apart, we’d have everything Kaufman wanted.
Baseball’s not going to shrink the playoffs. They’re too lucrative, and besides they’re a lot of fun. But it has to find a way for the postseason to be the exclusive domain of division winners, so that it’s possible for the best two teams in the league to be battling at the end of the season, with the loser’s season ending. If that means each league has to have four divisions in each league, then have four divisions.
More divisions is exactly the wrong answer. It’s luck of the draw that the Twins and Cardinals, who are respectively one game better than the Mariners and Giants, are sitting pretty while the wild card fight goes on. More divisions would increase the odds that you’d get a situation like the 1994 American League West, in which the Texas Rangers were leading with a sub-.500 record, a situation which would have caused a lot more bitching and moaning had there not been a strike.
If you really want only the best teams to make the playoffs, then what you want is to go back to no divisions, with (say) the top four teams making the playoffs. Now you’d have Boston, Seattle, and the Twins separated by two games for the last playoff spot in the AL, while the Cards, Giants, and Dodgers are equally bunched up for the last two spots in the NL. All that adding divisions does is separate the good teams who are also fortuitously situated from the good ones who are not so lucky.