When Major League Baseball announced its new format for Wild Card teams in the first round of the playoffs, like many, I was not sure if I approved of the change or not. Allowing two teams to earn Wild Card spots, then setting them against each other in a one-game playoff, seemed rather arbitrary. Why double the Wild Card spots to ensure a one game playoff?
Surely commissioner Bud Selig was interested in the recreating the drama that unfolded at the end of last year's regular season; one day in which a number of playoff seeds would, or could, be decided, along with the extra revenue that comes with an extra game, or more. Profits, and cheesy recreations of actual drama, were my initial reactions to this new format, but yesterday it became clear to me how much I approve of this new format.
Certainly the Baltimore Orioles and the St. Louis Cardinals approve of the new system, after each won their respective Wild Card games yesterday, but why should the fans like it? My reasoning does nothing to negate the drawbacks of the new system: surely profit is still the main reason for the change, and the drama is now predictable- there is no wondering "IF" there will be a game 163 for two teams; there simply will be. However, there is a pretty hefty silver lining.
Essentially, the old Wild Card slot has been devalued- and it should be. Many of the critics of the new format point to the era before three divisions, before the initial Wild Card spot was instituted, as the glory days. The best two teams from each conference in each league battled it out in the Championship series for the chance to play in the World Series. Then, everything got shifted: three divisions, with a winner from each, and the team with the next best record earned a spot as the Wild Card. But why should that team even make the playoffs?
Fans of the two-division format should appreciate this new system. If a team does not win its division, it should not make the playoffs. I am fine with that, and assume most people can appreciate that logic. However, with three divisions in each league (and you know MLB will not be changing that anytime soon), a fourth playoff team must be incorporated somehow. Instead of simply awarding the team with the next best record the Wild Card spot, this new format makes earning that final playoff spot even more difficult- and it should be.
The only sure way for a team to make the playoffs is now, once again, winning its division. If a team fails to do that, it may still have a chance, but will have to win a tough, and unfair, game in order to do so.
Baseball is a marathon. Over the course of 162 games, more times than not, the best teams come out on top. For this reason, the seven-game playoff series attempt to give the deepest team the advantage in the series, to mimic what the regular season proves. Many believe that the five-game Divisional Series should be stretched to seven games for this very reason, but that is another debate entirely.
What we know is that the Wild Card teams are NOT the best teams. A one game playoff does nothing to mimic what the regular season shows us. It does nothing to ensure that the better of the two Wild Card teams will make the playoffs, but why should it? These teams were not good enough to win their respective divisions, so why should they have a "fair" (as in a three, five, or seven-game series) chance at the playoffs?
The fantastic part about MLB's new Wild Card format is that winning a division has once again been emphasized.
"You want a playoff spot without winning your division? Ok- just beat this team in one game, and then we will allow you to enter the playoffs against the best team in you league. Good luck." This will only become more interesting in seasons where we have more than two teams earning Wild Card spots, in the form of matching records, tie-breakers, etc. Earning the Wild Card spot could literally could turn into its own mini tournament. Great- let these inferior teams wear themselves out scratching and clawing to claim that final spot.
Rest assured that fans will still see Wild Card teams making and winning the World Series in years to come. This system simply makes it harder for them to do so. The new system does decrease the value of the one Wild Card spot we've been used to in recent history, but that spot should be devalued. Winning a division is once again much more of an advantage than winning the Wild Card, which had been debatable under certain circumstances in years past.
I hate admitting that Bud Selig may have done something right for baseball, but I think he did. At least we can believe that he enacted it for the wrong reasons and, essentially, stumbled upon a positive outcome in the process. Back-handed kudos to Mr. Selig. Barring some unforeseen outcomes or possibilities, I believe this new Wild Card format to be a wonderful adaptation; one which increases the sanctity of playoff baseball.