Wild card teams first became a factor in 1994, when it was decreed that each league would add a team to the postseason mix, which had had the best record in its league without winning a division.
A typical season for a major-league baseball team is a long, tough slog. It consists of 162 games played over a six-month period. That's in addition to the tens of thousands of miles that a team must travel just to get to those games. But the prize at stake was always more than worth it. At least, it was in the old days. Whoever won the most games, be it in the National or the American League, was crowned champion and was automatically entered in the World Series with a chance to win it all.
That's not the way it works anymore.
Now, the team finishing the regular season with the most wins (along with the team with the second most wins) gets a bye in the first round of an elimination tournament, called "the playoffs," plus home field advantage, should it come to that. Beyond those perks, there are no guarantees. So this year, we had a situation in the National League in which the best team in baseball over the 162-game season, the Los Angeles Dodgers (who had a record of 111 wins and 51 losses) was eliminated in an early round by a team that finished 22 games behind them, the San Diego Padres, who finished at 89 and 73. In addition, the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets, who finished with 101 victories each, were knocked off by the Philadelphia Phillies and the Padres. The St. Louis Cardinals, who led the National League Central Division, were also beaten (2 games to 0) by the Phillies. The result was that the league found itself being represented in the division series by the teams who finished fifth and sixth (the Phillies and the Padres) during the regular season.
On the other hand, the two teams with the best records, the Houston Astros (106 and 56) and the New York Yankees (99 and 63) were still in the hunt. They survived to fight it out in the division series. With the Astros sweeping the Pinstripers.
The question is this: Is it worth the extra effort, to say nothing of expense, to finish in first place during the long, 162-game regular season, when a team with a less impressive record, should it get hot at the right time, could just as likely win the league championship?
The Dodgers, for example, have had the most regular season wins in nine of the last 10 years, yet they have only a single World Series title to show for it, and that was in the COVID-plagued 2020 season. Has it been worth the hundreds of million bucks it has cost them? I dunno. Do you?
MLB instituted its playoff system back in 1969 when, due to expansion, each league was increased to 12 teams and divided into two divisions, East and West. The leagues have since expanded more and redivided themselves into three divisions (East, West, and Central).
Wild card teams first became a factor in 1994, when it was decreed that each league would add a team to the postseason mix, which had had the best record in its league without winning a division. In 2012, MLB increased the number of wild cards to two per league, and as of this season, the number of wild card teams is up to three. That means that the team with the sixth best record in a season (read: San Diego Padres) could advance to the World Series. Go figure.
What was perhaps the last great pennant race (when it really meant something) took place in 1967, the Impossible Dream season of the Boston Red Sox. Four American League teams, the Red Sox, the Twins, the Tigers, and the White Sox, all entered the final week in a virtual dead heat. In those last games of the year, the White Sox fell into a slump and dropped out of contention, but the Red Sox, Twins, and Tigers all still had hopes of winning it all and playing in the World Series as the last day of the '67 season dawned.
The Red Sox and Twins, in a flat-footed tie for first place, had a Sunday afternoon game scheduled for Fenway Park, which would eliminate the loser. The Tigers, half a game behind, had a doubleheader in Los Angeles against the Angels. If they swept both games, it would force a winner-take-all playoff game the next day with the winner of the Red Sox-Twins game. The Sox, thanks to the clutch play of Carl Yastrzemski and the pitching (to say nothing of the bunting!) of Jim Lonborg, won their game by a come-from-behind victory by a score of five to three. When the Tigers lost the nightcap of their double header, the Red Sox, the darkest of dark horses, were the American League pennant winners. Unfortunately for them, the St. Louis Cardinals and pitcher Bob Gibson put an end to the Impossible Dream, winning the World Series four games to three.
Major League Baseball is enthusiastic about the present system because it keeps more teams and their fans interested for longer. That translates into attendance and TV ratings, which, of course, means more revenue. But is there enough incentive for teams to win as many games as possible during the regular season? Will it, in the long run, water-down the quality of the product? MLB sure hopes it doesn't, but no system is perfect. And God knows that baseball isn't either.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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