How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love (well, tolerate anyway) the Wild Card

I hate myself.

I realize that I’m joining a select group that’s second only to how many have been served at McDonalds and people who have signed the petition to get David Samson out of baseball, nevertheless it’s true.

You see, I’m a baseball traditionalist. I don’t like interleague play, and I loved the fact that you had to win your division to make the postseason. I hate artificial turf, domed stadia and replacing venerable old ballparks for faux venerable old-style looking ballparks. I like the designated hitter in the AL and the fact that pitchers have to bat for themselves in the National League.

I also hate myself for being so gosh darned inconsistent in my points of view.

Consistency, however, is merely a sign of mental health and emotional stability, and any encounter I might have with Dr. Phil would likely end up with a restraining order and a finale not unlike that of Old Yeller.

I guess it’s a matter of perspective. You see, back in 1981, the Montreal Expos won the NL East. Well, more specifically, they won the division in the second half of the strike-shortened 1981 season.

Hey, a division crown is a division crown.

However just 12 years prior to that, a terrible, horrible aberration had been foisted upon baseball that offended my traditionalist sensibilities (or they would have had not kindergarten gotten in the way) and instead of the team with the best record advancing directly to the World Series, MLB had split the two leagues into divisions and now the impure teams that had won a faux manufactured title had to play a best-of-five playoff to advance to the Fall Classic.

How it failed to loosen the seventh seal and trigger the Apocalypse, I’ll never know.

Anyway before Rick Monday (“No dear, I’m not suffering from Tourettes”) wrecked the remainder of my adolescence, I was having a grand old time in 1981 not caring a whit that the Expos had won a filthy division title instead of a good old-fashioned pennant the way the Brooklyn Dodgers used to in my daddy’s day.

Well that 12-year time frame reference (divisional play through Monday) is what has transpired since we went to the three division Wild Card format (we never got to see 1994 play out—“No dear, I’m not suffering from Tourettes, no need to make a doctor’s appointment now put the phone down.”), and it’s still with us. Yet again the seventh seal is still in place and the Apocalypse is still slated for a future date (most likely during Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals with the Maple Leafs up 8-1 with a minute left to play).

Oh the Wild Card has cost us plenty to be sure. In October 1996 it made what could’ve been a winner-take-all game between the Padres and Dodgers into a game simply to decide playoff seedings. This year features a potentially epic battle for the AL Central into a three-team race for two playoff spots, while the loser of the NL West—and possibly, although not likely, the NL Central—might mean a Wild Card berth as a consolation prize.

Of course in 2004 and 2005 what could’ve been for-the-ages pennant races between the Red Sox and Yankees merely turned out to be battles for playoff seedings.

On the other hand, the Wild Card has opened up other possibilities for excitement. While we missed out on those aforementioned pennant races in the AL East, we were treated to a pair of tremendous League Championship Series, one that ended with a Game Seven walkoff home run in extra innings, and another that featured the first and only comeback from a 3-0 series deficit.

And this from one of baseball’s most historic rivalries. Take away the Wild Card and they never happen. So while the Wild Card taketh away, sometimes it giveth back.

The National League is wide open, and part of the credit has to go to the Wild Card format. Let’s face it, Bud Selig, Jeffrey Loria and David Samson’s probable angst at the Marlins’ late run was Wild Card inspired.

The Pianist and Satchel Paige
A pianist finds inspiration in games from his childhood.

And for the record: As a matter of fact, I am small-minded, vindictive, self-absorbed and petty enough to be in favor of anything that accomplishes that.

I’ve heard many fans lament that the excitement in the senior circuit is more due to the comparative mediocrity in the league than anything else. Be that as it may, what is it we want? Do we want two or three teams to dominate the league or do we want to see as many teams hang in as possible?

It’s late September and we’ve got almost one-third of the league fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot. Isn’t that the baseball utopia we’ve been striving for?

Okay, so maybe it isn’t aesthetically pleasing, but dang it, it’s more fun than a beer-induced debate whether Bud Selig looks more like Stephen Hawking having a bad hair day or Werner Klemperer having no-hair day or merely the middle-aged version of Alfred E. Neuman.

Probably the best argument I’ve heard for the Wild Card format is that it does ensure that the league’s second-best team reaches the postseason. Since the playoffs are ideally for the top teams, I can see the logic in a system that guarantees such a team a playoff berth. In 1994 when the strike hit, the Texas Rangers were 52-62 while the Cleveland Indians weighed in at 66-47; absent the Wild Card the Rangers were due for the postseason while the Tribe were due for choosing between a nine-iron and a pitching wedge.

The Wild Card may have been a travesty, but the Rangers playing October baseball with the Indians watching it on television would’ve been downright knuckle-dragging, riding the short bus, swing-set too close to the house, “But there have been other cities who have stepped up, and we’ve had very serious conversations about the possibility of relocation” stupid.

So how did I merge my “What makes baseball great is that only division winners make the playoffs” with the “maybe the Wild Card isn‘t so bad after all” points of view? The ability to rationalize and play mind games with myself (which doesn’t cause blindness or hairy palms) is an immense help. When I look at the standings, I simply see four divisions in each league: The East, Central, West, and Wild Card. The winners advance to the postseason.

I would like to take this moment to point out in no uncertain terms that my feelings about the Wild Card have absolutely, positively nothing to do with the fact that the Blue Jays play in the same division as the Red Sox and Yankees and that the only chance of them reaching the postseason between now and the opening of the seventh seal is probably via the Wild Card.

Well maybe a teensy, weensy, itty bitty, miniscule, insignificant microscopic little bit.

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