And down the stretch they come

By: Austin Alexander-September 1, 2006

As we flip the calendar from August to September, seventeen out of Major League Baseball’s thirty professional teams ready themselves for the stretch run. Pennant races are alive and well as over half of pro baseball’s fan base has a home team to root for. Nowhere is interest greater than the National League. All but three teams are eyeballing the post-season, strange thing is, seven of them have records below .500. Which raises the question, is the Wild Card good or bad for baseball?

Let’s have a quick history lesson first. The Wild Card’s inaugural year was 1995. Commissioner Bud Selig and his office caught a great deal of grief from baseball purists who did not want to see a change in the structure of the post-season. Baseball had four division winners and two rounds of playoffs since 1969. Pre-Woodstock, there were no divisions, only a National and American League. Each team would send their best team to do battle in the World Series, this notion had been in place since 1903.

Back to the Wild Card era.

Since the institution of each league’s “best of the rest,” seven Wild Card teams have advanced to the Fall Classic, four have actually won the World Series. In fact, since 1995, Wild Card teams have won baseball’s top trophy more times than the best record in the League has. In 2002, both Series participants entered the playoffs as Wild Card’s.

And then there is this year. Cities across the country are clamoring about the possibility of baseball in October. Fifty-six percent of MLB is within 6.5 games of the ‘promised land’ and the final month of the season should be a blast. Stadiums remain filled and the game appears as healthy as ever. Or does it? Considering the success Wild Card teams have experienced in the fall, it is conceivable that a sub-.500 team could play for a world championship. Worse yet, they could win! They play 162 games and a team that couldn’t win half of them might be rewarded for having a hot streak?

Sitting on the fence? Consider that if there was no Wild Card, how history would have been altered. No one would know the name Jeffrey Maier, pictured left, (Yankees, 1996). There would have been no “Subway Series” which also means Roger Clemens would have never thrown a bat at Mike Piazza (Mets, 2000). The Florida Marlins may have never had a “fire sale” (1997, 2003). Don Mattingly might have won a World Series (Mariners, 1995). How about this? The Red Sox would still be in the middle of an 87-year drought (2004) and the Chicago Cubs may have ended their drought three years ago (Marlins, 2003). With no Wild Card, Steve Bartman would be a nerdy little guy with a normal life!

If you pull for a club that competes for the last playoff spot and does not make it, think a second about how that can set your organization into a tailspin that could last for years.

Instead of dealing a player in the final year of his contract for prospects, you hung onto him so he could hit .212 or go 1-3 with a 5.80 ERA in a losing effort…and then lost him in the off-season to free agency. While you ‘went for all’, your team played the aged-veteran, brought back an injured pitcher too early and sought wins over development. Those minor leaguers that could have been brought up in September ended up watching your team fail miserably on television just like you did. Bottom-line, the possibility of becoming the next Wild Card can create a false-sense of optimism before reality comes crashing down on you. But who can fault us for believing?

Regardless of which side of the topic you are on, you must at least appreciate what the Wild Card’s addition has brought to the game. With salaries continuing to escalate, baseball had to find a way to keep the fan’s interest for an entire season, hence, creating a way to pay the bills.

If you still oppose the Wild Card and a Divisional Series, then 2006 becomes ‘Exhibit A’ as to why things should have been left alone eleven years ago. You will always argue that no team hovering at the .500 mark should ever advance.

But then there is the history that baseball will not allow you to escape this debate. Think of how stale the last month of this season could be with each division all but wrapped up?

Either way, the game remains pure and perfect, despite what naysayers will lament. Even though the team I root for is among baseball’s lower 44% (actually they are in the bottom 10%), and are one of the clubs out of the race, more people may follow baseball in September this year than ever before! Here’s to the turnstiles spinning out of control all the way into October! You never know who is lurking around that corner as our next title team. What we do know is that the final 60 days of the baseball season will close with excitement, just the way it should.