Wild card drains passion from AL West racePosted: Friday September 13, 2002 12:51 PM
The Athletics win an AL-record 20 in a row. The Angels win 10 in a row. Oakland has the MVT -- Most Valuable Tejada. Anaheim has the Rally Monkey. They are tied for the division lead with identical 91-55 records in the middle of September.
On the surface, it has the makings of a frantic AL West pennant race. But wait. There is something missing.
It's called drama.
Thanks to the wild card, both teams are virtual locks to make the playoffs, a fact that sucks much of the tension out of their late-season battles.
It's a different story in the NL, where the wild-card race is the only thing worth watching. The Giants and Dodgers are tied heading down the stretch, setting the stage for another chapter in their storied rivalry.
Now in its eighth full season, the six-division, wild-card format is as much of a mixed bag as ever. It keeps more teams in the playoff hunt later in the season, doing more for competitive balance than limited revenue sharing or a luxury tax ever will.
At the same time, it makes a pennant race for the ages (Braves-Giants, 1993) nearly impossible because if two outstanding teams are competing for a division title, chances are the loser will make the playoffs anyway.
The wild card has given us two World Series teams, one of them a winner (1997 Florida Marlins). We also have enjoyed watching two one-game playoffs for the wild card, when the Cubs beat the Giants in 1998 and the Mets topped the Reds in '99.
On the other hand, it has rendered most division races useless. During the last nine seasons of the old, two-division format (1985-93), there were 14 division titles decided by three games or less. Under the wild-card format, there have been seven such division races in which the runner-up did not qualify as the wild-card team.
Perhaps the only pennant race that had a true do-or-die feel to it was the 1995 AL West. The Yankees had the inside track on the wild card, leaving the Angels and Mariners to fight for one playoff spot. The race was spectacular, ending in a regular-season tie that was settled when Seattle won a one-game playoff.
Division titles in general have been diluted. The best example of how little division crowns mean anymore happened last year when the Astros and Cardinals tied for first in the NL Central. Since both teams qualified for the playoffs, there was no need for them to settle things on the field. The Astros were given the higher seed in the playoffs and the Cardinals designated as the wild card, but St. Louis went ahead and raised an NL Central champion banner in their stadium anyway.
Which brings us to the Angels-A's "pennant race" of 2002. As they battle down the stretch, the only thing on the line is a division title that won't mean a hill of beans once the first pitch of the postseason is thrown. One team will win the AL West and the other the wild card.
But under the old system, one of these teams would be sent home despite having a winning percentage above .600. There are only three other teams that are above .600: Arizona, Atlanta and the New York Yankees. It would be unfair to leave any of these teams out. As much as purists like Bob Costas argue that the wild card hurts the integrity of the regular season, it obviously helps the integrity of the postseason by making sure the best teams in each league get in.
There will be no sense of finality to A's-Angels unless they meet in the ALCS on a national stage. Would that be better than what your grandfather had when the GIANTS WON THE PENNANT! in 1951? That's what we all have to decide for ourselves.