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The Wild-Card Curnch
Tom Verducci
August 21, 1995
Player have caught the fever, but this new kind of pennant race is perplexing
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August 21, 1995

The Wild-card Curnch

Player have caught the fever, but this new kind of pennant race is perplexing

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Many clubs and media outlets are ignoring the wild-card standings when, in fact, they are equally as important as the divisional standings. When the Yankees and the Orioles played last week, neither club made one mention of the wild-card standings—call these divisions the AL and NL Rest—in the combined 11 pages of game notes provided to the media on Aug. 9.

Last Friday's edition of The Kansas City Star included an explanation of the point system for determining the Canadian Football League standings but made no mention of the wild-card standings. A reader that day would have known only that the hometown Royals trailed first-place Cleveland by 19 games, though the more salient fact was that Kansas City was only one game back of three teams in the loss column in the race for the wild-card playoff spot.

The proximity of a playoff spot appeared to be lost on the Royals' front office as well, judging by the way K.C.'s brass overhauled the roster after that 2-1 loss to Seattle. Kansas City traded or cut veterans Vince Coleman, Chris James and Pat Borders and summoned four unproven players from the minor leagues. The message, though general manager Herk Robinson did his best to say otherwise, was that the Royals folded their wild-card hand to prepare for next year. "It's almost like we've abandoned any hope of [a wild card]," said pitcher Jeff Montgomery. "I think that's what the guys feel most shocked about."

For those still in the race, scoreboard watching, especially in the snarled American League, can be exasperating. Says Seattle manager Lou Piniella, "You don't know who to root for. It changes every damn day. The thing to do is to take care of yourself. In the end I don't think hanging around .500 is going to be enough. I think eight over is a good number."

"I'd like to see us open up a little distance," says Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly, who has played more games without going to the postseason than any active player. "But if we get in as a wild card, does that lessen what it means? Hell, no. I was on a team in 1985 that won 97 games—the second-best record in the league—and we didn't go to the playoffs."

Seattle isn't looking at the wild card as a cheap way of getting into the postseason either. The race to be runner-up prompted the Mariners to trade for Benes and what's left of his $3.4 million salary only 10 days before announcing that the club expects to lose $30 million this year. What's more, Ken Griffey Jr. is expected to rejoin the Mariners this week after missing three months with a broken hand. "It's going to be like an acquisition," Randy Johnson says. "Like, hey, we just picked up Ken Griffey on the waiver wire."

Seattle was scheduled to play 39 of its final 48 games against wild-card contenders or division leaders, "so it's in our hands," Piniella says. Texas has an easier ride, with only 10 games left against teams with winning records. Piniella knows too that the short first-round divisional series (best of five) helps, rather than handicaps, a lesser wild-card team against a deeper divisional champion. The Mariners, for instance, could start Johnson in Games 1 and 4—they are 18-3 when he starts—while choosing among Benes, Chris Bosio and Tim Belcher in Games 2 and 3. "In a five-game series, we're as equipped as anybody," Piniella says.

No wonder the Mariners are gladly logging extended hours at the ballpark. Here it is mid-August, and they are rightfully talking about playing deep into October. Simply wild.

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