Playoff Races Past and Present

With just a week left in the 2016 regular season, the only thing besides home field advantage still to be decided is which teams will fill the Wild Card slots. The American League has five teams battling for two spots, while the National League essentially has three teams in the running for their two positions, although Pittsburgh Pirates fans may beg to differ. With the division races being all but determined, the fans of the eight teams fighting for Wild Card slots will be in full-on nervous mode for the coming week. There will certainly be a lot of scoreboard watching going on in cities such as Baltimore, Detroit, and San Francisco.

The Wild Card system was introduced in 1994, but the first Wild Card postseason didn’t occur until 1995 because the ’94 season was ended by a strike. It was begun as a way to foster competitiveness and give more teams an opportunity to make the postseason. It would create excitement in cities which otherwise would just be playing out the string of games the final few weeks of the season. Which, of course, meant more game and television revenue.

I can remember seasons before the Wild Card came into play where your team could be 10-15 games out of first place going into September and the resignation that your season was over had already set in. Today, the St. Louis Cardinals are 18 games behind the first place Chicago Cubs, yet are just a half game behind the Giants for the second Wild Card. So, in that sense, the system is working like a charm. A quality team still has a chance for postseason play in a year where there is one clear and dominant team not just in their division of play, but in all of baseball.

It is also a bit ironic that even though the current division races are decided, things would be quite different if the year was 1980, for instance. The AL East would be a toss-up that would appear to be heading down to the wire, with the Cleveland Indians (90-63) holding a half-game lead on the Boston Red Sox (90-64). Not only would home field advantage be on the line, but both teams would be fighting for their playoff lives. One team would go on to face the Texas Rangers in the AL Championship Series, while the other would be getting out the golf clubs with their season ended.

Which format is better?  I’m sure most will side with the Wild Card system. I tend to be a bit on the old school side of things and have always preferred the old system of two division winners meeting in the LCS with a berth in the World Series on the line. Because isn’t the idea of a 162-game season to find the best teams and let them fight it out in a head-to-head series? With the Wild Card system, things tend to favor a team that kind of hangs around most of the year and gets hot at the end of the season to make a playoff run. It is the quality vs. quantity thing at play for me.

The 1978 season kind of cemented the idea that the pre-Wild Card system worked best for me. Being a New York Yankees fan came to me through my father. He was a diehard fan from the Mickey Mantle days. With the Yankees’ return to prominence beginning in 1976, I fell in line with his love of all things involving the Bronx Bombers. Watching them charge from 14.5 games back of the Red Sox in July to force a one-game playoff was amazing. I begged to stay home from school to watch the game. My mother said that my father was going to work that day, so I would go to school. I would be willing to bet a year’s pay that I didn’t hear two words the teacher said that day.

I remember racing home from the bus that afternoon only to reach the driveway and see my father’s car parked there. What the hell? I’ve been had. I busted through the kitchen and the look on my mother’s face could not hide the fact that she knew ahead of time that he would have come home early from work that day. As I hit the living room, the old man was on the edge of his seat, cigarette in hand.  I knew it must be one doozy of a game. I asked the score and got no response. I could have come in with my hair on fire and the response would have been the same. As I watched Fred Lynn fly out to right field and Ron Guidry walk off the mound to end the sixth inning, the score flashed on the screen: 2-0 Red Sox.

Everyone knows the rest of the story of that game. The point is that the old system worked and it was what brought me into this game and hooked me from a young age. It’s just interesting to look back and compare what would be happening right now in the game versus then. Yes, the Wild Card system creates excitement down to the final wire, but for my money, there is nothing that will beat the heart pounding that went on as a ten-year-old in 1978. It would take me a minute to even remember the Wild Card teams from two years ago, but I can almost do a play-by-play recount of that playoff game.

I will leave the question of which is better to another day. Like I said earlier, I usually take an old school stance to changes in the game. I have not been in favor of instant replay or catchers not being able to block the plate. I have accepted them as part of the game I love and support, even though it is not the same game I grew up with. As for the Wild Card, it’s hard to argue that it has been anything but successful. There have been no less than six World Series winners come from Wild Card qualifiers. But, for me, I would like to see the two best teams over 162 games go at it to determine the World Series participants.

The shot at a Wild Card slot has made watching Yankees baseball the past two months more interesting than if it wasn’t available, and for that I have been grateful. Although, it would stand to reason that Gary Sanchez alone would have been enough to stay glued to games the past two months. Regardless of whether I have a dog in the fight, when the playoffs start on October 4, I will probably be on the edge of my seat watching. Minus the cigarette. And if the Yankees aren’t involved, I will still be rooting for good baseball, no matter the teams playing. Unless the Red Sox are playing, of course.

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