Baseball benefits from more Wild Cards
Playoff expansion places more importance on regular season
One complaint I've heard in the wake of the announcements about the major changes coming to Major League Baseball is that the additional Wild Card spots and the drama of the one-game play-in between Wild Card winners is all about money.And to that I say, well, duh. Baseball is a business. Television is a business. And these two businesses are very much intertwined. Four teams are going to see their 162-game season come down to a win-or-go-home game. Television cameras will be on hand to capture it all. And any fan worth his foam finger will be watching at home or in the stands. This is a good thing for the game. Anybody who paints it otherwise doesn't have the sport's ultimate interests or existence in mind. Am I drinking the Kool-Aid? If you think so, so be it. But I think I'm sipping on rational, reasonable thought. A business that does not adapt to changing times and tastes becomes at best antiquated and at worst obsolete. It's why you can't walk into Best Buy and purchase a rotary phone. It's why Ford no longer sells the Model T. It's why high-definition televisions drastically outsell black-and-white sets with rabbit ears. Sports fans want and respond to drama, even if it's of the manufactured variety, and nobody wants a game in which the teams with the top payrolls routinely and easily waltz their way to the World Series. The new format will routinely give us the former, and the Wild Card has helped us avoid the latter. We just witnessed one of the single greatest months in the history of the sport, so perhaps some percentage of the backlash against a structure that would have prevented the existence of what transpired on Sept. 28 -- when the Cardinals and Rays completed their historic comebacks to make the playoffs -- is understandable. But what these changes ensure is that we will see a higher percentage of playoff races come down to the wire, and we will see, on an annual basis, two teams fighting for their playoff lives in a one-and-done format a day after the conclusion of the regular season. Even with these additions, MLB will still have the lowest percentage (33) of its teams making the postseason, when compared to the other major sports leagues -- the NFL, NHL and NBA. As long as it's done in a reasonable fashion, playoff expansion is not the end of the game as we know it. And this expansion, which could be in place as early as 2012, is perfectly reasonable. The complainers argue that anything that happens annually can't be special. And a one-game play-in -- as opposed to, say, a best-of-three series -- cheapens all that came before in the regular season, they say. The rest of us are simply sports fans, not historians. We like to be entertained. We're not obsessed with some fuzzy notion of tradition that, frankly, went out the window long ago. Expansion, Interleague Play, Wild Cards ... these are all elements that have completely altered the landscape of Major League Baseball over the years. But they've also helped it continue to generate revenue and remain relevant in an increasingly competitive bid for the average person's entertainment dollar. Remember, we're talking about a business, not a non-profit. If baseball adamantly clung to its old traditions, this year's World Series would have pitted the two teams with the AL's and NL's best records -- the Yankees and Phillies -- against each other. No Division Series or even a League Championship Series. Just the two best teams a six-month schedule could produce. You can only imagine the kind of complaints that setup would engender. Payroll disparities are glaring enough with the Wild Cards intact. Whether you love or loathe the playoff expansion that has taken place over the years, the fact that it's promoted more unpredictability in the postseason picture is beyond dispute. Besides, to complain about the addition of a second Wild Card in each league is to ignore the simple fact that these additions have actually increased the importance of the regular season. That's a notion even the purest of purists should get behind. Think about it. These two additional playoff spots are not a means of watering down the October field. Rather, what MLB has created is a play-in system, adding a measure of mystique to the six teams that win their division and don't have to burn their aces or best available pitchers in a one-game playoff. Don't like the one-game play-in versus the idea of a best-of-three? Why? You'd rather the division winners sit around for four or five days while the Wild Card winners duke it out? You'd prefer a team completely gas the front end of its rotation before the Division Series even starts? You like November baseball? With this arrangement, the Division Series round essentially remains the first round of the postseason proper. Except now, a hurdle has been placed in front of the teams that fail to win their divisions outright and want to get to that point. This is a hurdle that was virtually non-existent when all that stood between a Wild Card club and a division winner was home-field advantage -- an advantage that, historically, has proven to be worthless. Since the current system was adopted in 1998, exactly half of the 56 Division Series have been won by the team that opened on the road. So, shouldn't a system that diminishes the value of the Wild Card be one that appeases the touters of tradition? Absolutely, it should. All of this was predicated on Houston's move to the American League. Everybody else in baseball benefits from the Astros biting the bullet, because the competitive and scheduling imbalances caused by the 16/14 alignment became even more unacceptable now that two more Wild Card spots are being added to the postseason picture. People have argued that playing Interleague games all season will make the World Series less special. But we already had teams playing as many as 18 games against opponents from the other league, and it's not anticipated that teams will play any more in this new format. So what's the big deal? The games will be spread out, so teams will no longer have to go through nine-game stretches without a designated hitter they built around or with a DH spot they are not adequately equipped to fill. This is a good thing. Fans of AL teams are worried that their club will have to play the final three games of its season on the road in an NL park with no DH available to them and a playoff berth on the line? Well, those are three games that would have been played in June, anyway, in the current format. So my best advice to the team with this scheduling predicament would be to take care of business beforehand and not put yourself in such a bind. Otherwise, hang with 'em. This is a sport. It's supposed to be fun. The Wild Card system made it more so, and now that system has been infused with a little more fairness. Moreover, this is a business. And businesses must adjust to their environment. In sports, in life and in business, you have to embrace change, lest you become irrelevant. So embrace this. It's not change for the sake of change. It's change for the sake of the game.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.