Wild Card Races Good to the Last Pitch

You must admit: you have to hand it to Bud Selig about that whole Wild Card thing.

It has been 10 years since the commisioner of baseball decided to rattle some traditional cages and create the current MLB playoff system. But even those most adamantly opposed to the Wild Card have to admit that this is one thing that Selig got right.

The current playoff setup provides for much more excitement for so many more teams than the previous one – something that is desperately needed in many baseball cities. Without the Wild Card, the only tight divisional race to watch would be that between Oakland and Los Angeles – of Anaheim – battling for control of the American League West. And while that is a very exciting race, many on the East Coast will never see a game of it because of all the 10:05 p.m. first pitches.

Instead of that, however, the final few weeks of the season hold inordinate possibilities. In the American League, you have the Cleveland Indians, a young and hungry bunch of players looking to return the team to past glory, and the New York Yankees, an old and decrepit bunch of players looking to return the team to the dynasty days. And then there are the Athletics and the Angels; whichever team doesn’t take the Division will surely make a big run at the Wild Card. The mix of youth and experience provide for a unique race in the season’s final weeks.

In the National League, things are that much more interesting. You have the Houston Astros, the hitless wonders with the ageless wonder himself as the team’s ace. (As a side-note, I’m still not over the fact that then-Red Sox GM Dan Duquette said that Clemens was in “the twilight of his career” after the 1996 season. Good work, Duke.) The Florida Marlins, a team that looked dead and was seriously considering dealing ace A.J. Burnett only a few months ago, has reemerged as a serious contender. And I always enjoy watching the Philadelphia Phillies pretend to make a run at the playoffs, knowing full well that something will happen in the end to derail the Phils.

The NL also has three other teams that are within six games of the Marlins (at least after Wednesday’s games – things change so quickly, who knows who will be in the lead come Friday): Washington, Milwaukee and Chicago (Cubs). The Nationals (3.5 GB) were baseball’s Cinderella team for the first few months of the season, and it’s good to see that the team is still hanging around in the Wild Card chase. Without it, the team would have no shot at passing both Florida and Atlanta. With it, the Nats still have a chance (albeit small).

The Wild Card provides pure entertainment to the spectator, but more importantly, it provides hope for many baseball clubs. The Astros are 15.5 games behind the NL Central-leading Cardinals, and without the Wild Card everyone in Houston would be gearing up for David Carr and the Houston Texans’ season (okay, maybe not). Likewise in the American League, the team with the biggest divisional deficit, Cleveland, 5.5 games back of Chicago, leads the AL Wild Card chase.

Hope of reaching the playoffs can even stretch beyond one year. Teams in Minnesota, Milwaukee, Toronto and Washington are able to hold on to their players longer, because these squads believe that a Wild Card berth is not beyond reason. Without it, there is no way for the Brewers to surpass both St. Louis and Houston, nor for the Blue Jays to overtake both the Yankees and Red Sox. Now, however, these teams need to overtake only one of two teams in order to possibly reach the playoffs.

And on a humanitarian level, I’m also glad that the Wild Card gives hope to those who root for the New York Yankees, who are currently struggling to keep pace with the Indians. I find it especially rewarding to give a second chance to George Steinbrenner’s squad, who most certainly will not catch the Red Sox and might not even make the playoffs at all. It is good to see that Selig’s system can help big-budget teams and small-market clubs alike.

In my opinion, the only way to make the Wild Card system even better is to place some sort of restriction on what teams can win it – say, having a payroll of under $75 million. Yes, that would disqualify some perennial teams from the race (including my own, of course), but it would bring even more excitement to September for the smaller markets.

Then again, Boston was the AL Wild Card representative last season, and that turned out pretty well for my Old Towne Team. Maybe that’s why I like the Wild Card so much.