BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
09 October 2021
ORLANDO, FL -- Disaster averted.
That likely was the feeling early morning Thursday, Oct. 7 in the executive offices of Major League Baseball and the TV networks after the Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League’s win-or-go-home, wild-card playoff game.
History will show that calamity was avoided at exactly 12:24 a.m. Eastern time when Dodgers’ outfielder Chris Taylor sent a hanging slider from St. Louis right-hander Alex Reyes into the left-field bleachers at Dodger Stadium to give Los Angeles a 3-1 victory.
Imagine the outcry had the 106-win, defending World Series champion Dodgers been eliminated by the Cardinals, who won 16 fewer games during the regular season. Imagine the uproar if a team with the fourth-highest regular-season victory total in the last 20 years was ousted in what amounts to a coin-toss-of-a-game. Imagine the angst of TV executives if they’d lost the country’s two biggest media markets on the first two nights of the postseason. (The New York Yankees were defeated by their archrivals, the Boston Red Sox, in the American League wild-card game the previous evening; losing the L.A. market on top of that would have increased that stress immeasurably.)
But, thanks to the Dodgers’ ninth-inning, walk-off, two-run homer, Major League Baseball and TV got what they desired: an N.L. Division Series matchup between Los Angeles and its archrival, the surprising San Francisco Giants, who won 107 games during the regular season. It is the first time these two storied West Coast rivals have met in the playoffs.
‘What Baseball Wants’
“It’s what baseball wants,” Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts said following his team’s dramatic win. “Dodgers-Giants, one of the best rivalries in sports. It’s happening.”
A Dodger defeat in the wild-card would have been historic. Only once in MLB history has a team won 106 games during the regular season, but none in the postseason. That is the 1954 Cleveland Indians. They won 111 games while claiming the American League championship, but then were swept in four games in the World Series by the New York Giants.
But, it was a distinct possibility given the crapshoot that this wild-card game is -- where a fluke play or bounce of the ball can eliminate a team and destroy a sensational season.
All single-elimination games, regardless of the sport, are nerve-racking. One mere second can mean the difference between ecstasy and disconsolation, between hero and goat. A fan’s feelings toward the game tend to be colored by how their team fared. If you win, it’s great; but if you lose, a bitter taste lingers throughout the offseason. Just ask Pittsburgh Pirates’ fans. The Pirates lost wild-card games in consecutive seasons, 2014 and 2015. (The franchise hasn’t been the same since, finishing above .500 only once.)
“I’m going to watch both (wild-card) games, and I’m going to enjoy them as a spectator,” Colorado Rockies’ manager Bud Black told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. “But when it’s over that quickly — bam, you’re done. You’d like to have a chance to show why you got into the playoffs with at least three games. I think that’s the viewpoint of any player, manager, general manager, coach.”
That should be the view of Major League Baseball as well. It’s time for the league to bounce the wild-card game with the same swift, brutal finality with which it disposes the loser.
The problem is not with wild-card teams, per se. They add value. Since the wild-card format was adopted in 1995 (the second wild-card was added in 2012), 13 of those teams have reached the Fall Classic and seven have won, including two -- the 2019 Nationals, and the 2014 Giants – that were the No. 2 wild-card clubs. The problem is the single-elimination game.
Caution: Lane Shift Ahead
That wild-card game is the antithesis of baseball’s format. MLB seasons are based on series, not individual games. During the regular season, teams play each other in two-, three-, or four-game series. In the postseason, there are the League Division Series, the League Championship Series, and, of course, the World Series (The LDS is best-of-five games, while the LCS and World Series both are best-of-seven). A single, winner-take-all contest runs counter to that. To switch to a sudden-death format while on the game’s biggest stage – the postseason – and with so much at stake makes no sense.
Proponents of the wild-card game concede that baseball’s postseason format is not always fair or rational, but contend that it is not supposed to be. Baseball’s postseason, they say, should not be immune to sport’s “On any given day…” randomness. Sports, they assert, should have on-the-edge-of-your-seat drama, where, say, a baseball team that won 100-plus games during the season risks the heartbreak of having one misplaced pitch or a bad-hop-grounder destroy championship dreams.
Certainly there was drama in this year’s contests. One pitted two bitter archrivals – the Yankees and Red Sox – against each other, while the other featured two of the National League’s most successful franchises – the Dodgers and Cardinals. Both were played at iconic ballparks – Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium, respectfully. And, one ended with the stunning finality of a walk-off homer.
But a contrived, one-game playoff after six months of competition seems more like punishment than accomplishment. This year’s Dodgers, which tied a franchise record for wins in a season, are one of only three clubs to have won at least 100 regular-season games yet found themselves having to play an elimination game in order to continue their season (the other two are the 2018 Yankees with 100 victories, and the 2011 Oakland A’s with 102 wins). They simply had the misfortune of being in the same division as the even hotter Giants. Put L.A. in the East or Central division, and the Dodgers’ record easily wins that division.
Here’s what Dodgers’ ace Max Scherzer told writers before he faced the Cardinals in their wild-card game. “Look, you have to win your division. We didn’t win our division (finishing a game behind the Giants). There’s no crying in baseball. We’re in second place. We’re in the wild-card game.”
Doesn’t sound like someone who’s excited to have reached the postseason, and this from a guy who understands the possibilities – he pitched for a wild-card team (the 2019 Nationals) that won a World Series.
A Sprint Within a Sprint
It’s often been said that Major League Baseball’s season is a marathon (regular season) followed by a sprint (playoffs). Well, the wild-card game is a sprint within a sprint. It’s like a one-furlough Kentucky Derby, a one-round championship boxing match, a single-lap NASCAR race, or a first-team-to-21-wins NBA playoff game.
There is an easy, common sense fix, which should be part of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement that is to be negotiated after this year’s World Series. Simply make it a best-of-three series, with games hosted by the wild-card team with the better record. Should the series go the full three games it would only lengthen the postseason by two days.
As far as Major League Baseball is concerned, there’s an even better reason than common sense to expand the wild-card to three games, and it’s the league’s all-time favorite: more TV money.
Plus, there is a precedent. As part of the expanded postseason during the 2020 pandemic-shortened campaign, the wild-card rounds were three-game series. I don’t recall there being a lot of complaints then from fans or players that there were too many games.
Three-game series can provide entertaining theatre, too. For example, in 1962, the Dodgers and Giants met in a best-of-three set to determine which would represent the National League in the World Series after both won 101 regular-season games (the Giants took the tie-breaker series, two-games-to-one). Eight future Hall of Famers played in that series.
Another option would be to jettison the wild-card game completely and expand the postseason to six teams in each league, giving first-round byes to the two teams with the best records in each circuit, and making the first round two three-game series. But, that likely will have to wait until baseball adds two more teams.
So, how did this win-or-go-home, wild-card game come about? You can thank – or blame -- former commissioner Bud Selig, and his infatuation with a day just over 10 years ago that has become widely known around baseball as “Game 162.”
On Sept. 28, 2011, the final day of that regular season, four games being played simultaneously determined the wild-card team for each league. It was a day of improbable comebacks – Tampa Bay Rays rallying from a seven-run deficit against the Yankees; of extra-inning heartbreaks – the Atlanta Braves being eliminated after a 13-inning loss to the Philadelphia Phillies; of dramatic walk-offs – the Red Sox denied the playoffs when they lost to the host Baltimore Orioles on a ninth-inning single; of TV networks cutting in and out of games, trying to capture that drama; of nerve-racking waits – the Cardinals’ fate dependent upon the Braves’ game; and of reputations being made and careers shattered.
When all the playing stopped and nerves calmed down after a frenetic, head-spinning day, improbably the Rays and Cardinals had earned the wild cards. Improbable because on Sept. 1 the Rays trailed the Red Sox for the A.L. wild-card spot by 9.5 games (Boston would become the first team in MLB history to lose a nine-game lead in September), while in the National League the Cardinals – who would go on to win the World Series -- were 8.5 games behind the Braves.
“I’m telling you, man. I’ve been in a lot of crazy shit. And this one is as crazy as it gets,” then Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said after his team clinched.
Some have called Sept. 28, 2011, “the greatest day in baseball history.” It was a huge TV ratings success, and Selig was so enamored by it he wanted that type of drama – and ratings -- each season. So, he convinced Major League Baseball to add a second wild-card team in each league beginning the following year, to set up a winner-take-all game. So, the wild-card game basically is baseball’s version of a made-for-TV movie.
Change Makes Sense
There likely will be a lot of calls for change this offseason after the media-darling New York Yankees got bounced from the postseason after just one game. As there should be. Not because it happened to the Yankees, but because a three-game series makes sense for baseball.
As I’ve written before (“Who’s the Greatest Baseball Commissioner of All Time?”, July 1, 2021), Selig may be one of the best – if not the best – commissioners. But, I cannot forgive him for forcing this single-game, win-or-go-home travesty upon the sport and its fans. Yes, it can provide drama and excitement, but it’s stupid. Teams battle for 162 games over six months, and then one coin-toss-of-a-game determines their season?
“If I’m playing on a team that just won 100 games, I want to have the right to be out there and kind of stretch my chances for at least three games — not just one and done,” Hall of Fame right-hander Pedro Martinez told Kepner. “The efforts of my entire team, my entire organization, going down the drain by losing one game? One little mistake?”
Having a one-game playoff in a sport defined by series tends to leave one unfulfilled, like eating a single McDonald’s French fry, or ordering only an appetizer at a five-star restaurant, or choosing a “mini-dessert” from a restaurant’s dessert cart. It’s time for baseball to replace the “lite” wild-card game with a more substantive three-game series.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.