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Sunday, May 26, 2024
The Observer

Hadley: MLB scores with playoff expansion (Sept. 9)



The NFL regular season kicked off Sunday, though in all likelihood, you already knew that. Maybe you watched a game or two. You probably checked the scores for your fantasy team as you were doing homework. At the very least, you checked ESPN and saw the headlines about Colin Kaepernick. I did all three. 

But at the same time, I kept an even closer eye on the race for the last wild card spots in baseball. The regular season is coming to a close, and thanks to recent rule changes, these last 20 games will almost certainly be as exciting as any in recent history.

It all started in March 2012, when commissioner Bud Selig announced the addition of a second wild card. Previously, only the division winners and the team with the next best record made the playoffs. Under the new system, the two best teams outside of the division winners play each other in a single elimination game. The decision was made to generate more excitement among fans that were drifting towards the NBA or NHL.

Right away, the system worked. In the National League (NL), the Cardinals, the defending world champions, took the second wild card and used the opportunity to advance all the way to the National League Championship Series. In the American League (AL), the Orioles broke out of a streak of 14 losing seasons, grabbed the second spot, won the elimination game, and pushed the Yankees to five games before finally falling. More importantly, the extra playoff spots kept one historically great baseball city (St. Louis) in the hunt and revitalized another after a moribund decade (Baltimore).

Now, a year later, Selig's decision is proving to be wise again. Five different teams are still in contention for the second wild card in the AL. The Rangers look to be fairly secure in the top spot, and entering Monday, the Rays hold the second, but Tampa Bay is only two games ahead of both the Indians and Orioles, who narrowly lead the Yankees and Royals. 

The Royals and Indians, like last year's Orioles, are franchises that haven't been close to the playoffs for years. For the Orioles, it's time to prove that last year wasn't a fluke. The Yankees desperately need to be in the postseason because, well, they're the Yankees. For the Rays, it's another chapter in their story of defying expectations and competing in the brutal AL East. For all these teams' fans, the next few weeks will be thrilling.

Over in the NL, the central division race is about as tight as can be. Three teams, the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds, have been dueling back and forth since the All-Star game and are separated by a game-and-a-half. Without the second wild card, one of these three deserving teams would be left out. Now, whoever wins the division will get a rest while the other two play again for all the marbles. Basically, it's a dream scenario for the fans and for baseball.

Some baseball purists have decried the second wild card as inherently unfair. Why should a team that played better than another in the regular season be forced to again beat that team in a one-game playoff? It devalues the regular season and will make for a boring finish to the season because teams won't have to scramble for that one spot. Even worse, it lessens the quality of teams in the postseason.

These are valid points, but that doesn't make the second wild card a bad idea, for the same reason having one wild card isn't a bad idea. From a competitive standpoint, second- and even third-place teams in some divisions (AL East, NL Central) are just as good as division leaders in others. But because those division leaders play their own, less competitive compatriots more often, their records are inflated. Should a team be punished because they are forced to play a team like the Red Sox or Cardinals more? When it comes down to it, the better team will win over a seven-game series. And, as the past two years have shown, it certainly doesn't make the end of the regular season boring.

Of course, it's not all about competition. Business is an integral part of modern sports and a second wild card is good for business. More markets get involved in the lucrative postseason and fans buy more tickets and merchandise. And, as greedy and self-serving as that might sound, it's okay, because a second wild card gives a chance to mid-market teams that need the boost to stay competitive. Most importantly, more fans get the chance to see their team fight for the World Series.

What's wrong with that?

Contact Greg Hadley at
The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.