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In Defense of the Wild Card, or, To the Victor Go the Spoils


There has been a lot of talk in baseball circles lately about the new playoff system, which will potentially be implemented for the 2012 season. Many fans are against playoff expansion. They don’t want to see more non-first-place teams have a chance at postseason success. There was a time when a team had to win the division in order to make the playoffs, and some see that as a bygone era of glory. Since 1995, when the wild card was first introduced, second place teams have been given a fair shot at the World Series, disadvantaged only in that they generally face the team with the best record in the first round of the playoffs.  And since that year, there have been five World Series winners who entered the postseason as a wild card team, including this past year’s St. Louis Cardinals.

I can understand where people are coming from when they say that only division winners should make the playoffs. If you can’t even manage your own division, how have you earned the right to play in the Fall Classic? But hear me out for a second.

Postseason baseball is about being in the right place at the right time. It’s about a team coming together and making magic. In many cases, the regular season is totally irrelevant once the postseason begins. That’s true even with division winners. Case in point: in 2010, the Texas Rangers won the American League West with a 90-72 record, the 4th-best record in their league. They mowed over the Rays and Yankees (both with better regular season records) and won the pennant. In the National League, the San Francisco Giants won the West with a 92-70 record, 2nd-best in the league. They handled not only the wild card Braves but the 97-game winning Phillies and won their own pennant. They also won the World Series. These teams may have won their divisions, but they were not the best teams in their respective leagues. They played good baseball when it mattered. Guys like Ian Kinsler and Cody Ross, who were just okay in the regular season, had a moment when their teams needed them to. You can’t bottle that. It happens where it happens.

Let me also point out that a team can play very good baseball in the regular season and still fall short because their division is just that good. This happens regularly in the American League East, where the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays have passed around the division title and the wild card over the past several years. In most cases, all three teams have been better than or comparable to any other team in the league, even the winners of the other two divisions. Sometimes a team can be excellent and then, because of the bad luck geography often brings, find itself beneath a stack of teams that were even more excellent. The wild card gives a team like that the opportunity to shine. Many times, teams that are built to put up a crooked record in the regular season (like last year’s Phillies) don’t jell sufficiently when the postseason comes around. Their weaknesses are exposed, and a team like the Cardinals can step into the void and fill it.

Last, but certainly not least, I’m a Rockies fan, okay? If there’s no wild card, there’s no 2007. Face it, there’s no Rockies playoff berths period. This team that I have so loved for nearly two decades would still have zero playoff appearances in its history. And that would be very unfortunate, because there has to be room for a team to do what the Rockies did in 2007. All of their end-of-season momentum would have meant nothing if the wild card spot wasn’t up for grabs. The Diamondbacks had already won the division, and it was too late to overtake them. But because the Rockies were given a pass to the postseason thanks to their unbelievable September, they were able to sweep the D-backs in the NLCS and make their only World Series appearance in franchise history. As a fan, I needed that pennant. And I wouldn’t have gotten it without the wild card.

Yes, I understand that the expansion to two wild cards waters down the importance of the regular season a little bit. But baseball, for me, has always been about magic, at least to a point. You can’t account for that spark that comes off some teams as they go into October, and you can’t argue with the way some of them turn the spark into a blazing fire. More playoff teams keeps things unpredictable, and it keeps everyone on their toes. If a 100-game winner can go down in the division series, then everyone has to bring their A-game to every single second of the postseason. And I would not want it any other way.