Sunday, September 02, 2007

This Debate Ended 12 Years Ago and the Wild Card Won

After a final week of August stacked with excellent match-ups between division contenders, there are still writers complaining that the races to October aren’t as exciting as in the good old days. This latest bit of garbage comes from the incomparable(ly old) Murray Chass of the New York Times.

The complaint? The Yankees are involved in 2 races: the wild card race that they have a pretty good shot of taking, and a far less likely but what the hell who knows division race against the Red Sox. If you are a Yankee fan this seems like a great thing because as Chass concedes,

“Anything can happen once a team reaches October (There’s only one October,” Major League Baseball tells us incessantly.)”

That last part seems like an innocent shot at Fox’s latest attempt to sloganeer baseball to death. But you should know something about this man. You see, Murray Chass actually believes in two Octobers. One he calls “October Prime.” An October where the Yankees make the post-season and all is right with the world. The other? “Nega-October.” A blackened hell-scape where the Yankees are banished to a non-playoff limbo, while an 8-armed, dead-eyed madman he calls The Octo-Clops ascends from the abyss to raze cities and kidnap orphans.

Anyway. Chass complains that in all likelihood Boston and New York are both making the post-season this year. As of today Baseball Prospectus’ handy post-season odds page puts their playoff chances at 99% and 71% respectively. If you are a fan of either team you can relax (or do whatever the Red Sox fan equivalent of relaxing is.) So what’s the problem?

Apparently the Wild Card is since most of the article is a baffling indictment of it. Like me you’d read this and say, “We’ve been living with the Wild Card since 1995! All of a sudden it’s a problem because an arbitrarily defined Yankee ‘surge’ won’t knock the Red Sox out of the playoffs?” Well you’d have a point.

Unfortunately, Murray Chass has a New York Times column and a rudimentary grasp of the mimeograph.

Even though Chass acknowledges that Wild Card teams are plenty capable of post-season success, he continues:

Not that there’s anything wrong with a second-place team emerging on top, especially when that team may have a better record than some other division champion, and not that there’s anything wrong with keeping teams in contention deeper into the season than they would otherwise be. And not that there’s anything wrong with putting more people in the parks in September and creating more revenue for more teams and increasing the television ratings.

All of those reasons are why Commissioner Bud Selig loves the wild card, which was created by necessity when the leagues went to three divisions. But Selig the baseball fan would have to acknowledge that the wild card detracts from the division races.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with a second-place team emerging on top” and “deeper into the season than they would otherwise be” drip with condescension, and the second part is just flat out obnoxious. THE WILD CARD HAS BEEN AROUND FOR 13 SEASONS THESE TEAMS ARE EXACTLY WHERE THEY SHOULD BE.

Also, cynically bringing up revenue and TV ratings, and appealing to Selig “as a baseball fan” to make the Wild Card seem like a coarse money-making scheme by a commissioner who doesn’t care about the sanctity of the game is ridiculous. Yes. It is factually correct that Wild Card era baseball has seen a significant boost in September attendance since the format was instituted (around 30% according to BP’s recent “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” book.) But a real fan of the sport would be excited about increased interest in baseball and hell, just the extra number of games it creates.

The Wild Card, by definition, adds a competitive element to September. Even if it might seem to the misguided older fan that it has taken something away by altering the traditional “winner take all” division race, it has created a new cross-division race that can be just as exciting.

If Murray Chass can brace himself for a second, there is a whole world of baseball outside of Boston and New York and hacky attempts to force a “Ghost of 1978” narrative on the season. The National League right now is a picture of parity, with no 2nd place team trailing by more than 4 games, one division in a tie, and the Wild Card race pretty much a toss-up between any decent non-Central team. The Wild Card brings hope and success to a wider net of teams, and resultantly a wider net of followers. That seems pretty exciting to me, the baseball fan.

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Blogger sabesin2001 said...

i totally agree the wildcard is a good thing, it's one of the few things about baseball's current structure that i wouldn't change.

what i don't understand is why we have the unbalanced schedule and the wildcard at the same time. near the end of the year you end up with 3-5 teams in each league fighting for division titles and 5 or more teams fighting for the wild card. everyone is playing a majority of games against their own divisional rivals for a playoff spot that is unrelated to what division you are in.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Jobu said...

Totally - the unbalanced schedule is one of the more unfair concepts in baseball. Should the D'backs have a better shot at the wildcard than the Tigers just because they get to beat up on the NL west, while the Tigers have to play the Indians & Twins?

9:10 AM  

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