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Poisoned pennant races: it may be the Summer Game, but baseball's siren song most often is sung come September as the fight for the flag nears its apex--too bad the wild card makes for such a hollow tune.

WHILE figuratively beating a dead horse is an exercise in cliched excess, the process can be therapeutic--and, who knows, perhaps the baseball brass could have its collective common sense spring back to life--so we'll keep on swinging and making our wild pitches for sanity concerning the madness known as the wild card.

At times, it's tough to distinguish what's more frustrating: the inherent unfairness of how baseball picks its playoff participants or the collective complicitness of the media and fans to this cruel hoax on post-season justice. After all, when designing a playoff system, no matter what the sport or number of clubs qualifying, shouldn't the object be to get the best teams (as determined by their won-lost record) into the post-season tournament? Yet, season after season, some team(s) sit home while others with worse winning percentages advance.

In 2009, it was the Texas Rangers, runners-up in the American League West to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who were forced to take a seat while the Central Division champion Minnesota Twins (whose record was inferior to Texas') merrily joined the post-season party after knocking off co-titlist Detroit in a one-game playoff--and this Minny-Motown matchup is a good jumping off point to demonstrate the many glitches in this misguided playoff system First off, Minnesota hosted this one-game showdown by virtue of winning a coin toss several days before the regular season ended. This is an annual ritual that takes place on the QT between the Commissioner's office and the various clubs that could be headed for a final-day tie for a playoff spot--but why flip a coin when head-to-head regular-season results would be a much fairer determining factor as to home-field advantage? Remember, being division rivals, the Twins and Tigers did play each other 18 times during the season, which, incidentally, brings us to a bigger problem.

With three divisions in each league, intradivisional competition constitutes a bulk of a team's schedule, meaning that those competing for the fourth playoff spot in each league--the second-place team with the best record (aka the wild card)--are not playing the same schedule, giving clubs in weaker divisions an advantage. For instance, in mid August of this season, the National League's Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies (East), Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals (Central), and San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants (West) were neck-in-neck for division titles or a wild card berth. The West, at that point, had four teams well above .500, the East and Central two winning clubs apiece--while the Central (although these firings are cyclical) is loaded with terrible teams. Consequently, the Red Legs and Redbirds certainly will not be seeing red over competing against cream puff opponents down the stretch while S.D. and S.F. will be doing just the opposite.

While Commissioner Bud Selig and his braintrust were ill-advised to have a coin flip decide home field in case of ties, that, in reality, is not such a big deal, since success and failure at least are decided on the field, not by some tie-breaking formula h la the National Football League or National Hockey League. Still, even when baseball does it right, it still can't seem to get it right. Winning percentage is what determines the order in the standings. Back in the early part of the 20th century, before the advent of commercial air travel, rainouts and games called because of darkness (remember, old-time ballparks had no lights) sometimes proved too inconvenient or expensive to be rescheduled, so the final standings might have teams playing an uneven number of games--thus the winning-percentage standard to determine pennants.

In those instances when there were ties for the flag, the extra game(s) played--the American League used a one-game showdown in 1948 (Cleveland Indians-Boston Red Sox), while the N.L. employed a best two-of-three in 1942 (St. Louis-Brooklyn), 1951 (New York-Brooklyn), and 1962 (San Francisco-Los Angeles)--counted as part of the regular season, in team and individual statistics. Fast-forward to the present day, where the same rule applies ... well, almost. Let's say the Braves and Phils finish tied for the East Division title and their records also qualify as the wild card entrant; both would advance to the post-season. A tie-breaker formula only is applied in baseball for seeding: determining which club is division champ and which is the wild card, or deciding among division champs with the same record who receives home-field advantage in the Division League Championship (second round) series. (The World Series is the third round.) So far, so good.

However, what if the Braves, Phils, and Giants all close with a record of 103-62, with the Padres winning the West with a 103-59 record? The Braves and Phillies would have a one-game "playoff' to determine the East champ, the loser facing the Giants to decide the wild card. However, if Atlanta beats Philadelphia for the division crown, that now puts Philly's "regular season" record at 100-63, a winning percentage of .613. So, the Giants (.617) should be the wild card and advance. No, say the MLB bosses, who changed the rules after such a scenario almost unfolded a few years back. The "regular season" continues for one more game. Consequently, the Phillies get two shots at making the playoffs, having to win only one to advance.

Once the playoff participants finally are set, there is the matter of seeding, another process that is skewed by the three-division, one wild card setup, as the division winner with the best record is to face the wild card--unless both are from the same division. In that case, the top division record faces the division champ with the third-best record and the wild card goes against the division winner with the second-best record (in a best three-of-five). In our scenario, the Cardinals have won the Central with a 95-67 record, making the matchups: Padres vs. Phillies and Braves vs. Cardinals. Based on record, this is best vs. third-best and second-best vs. fourth-best. Seedings are supposed to be 1-4 and 2-3. The Padres are being punished for having the league's best record and the Braves are being unduly rewarded by getting to play the weakest (based on record) of the playoff participants--and still more trouble lies ahead.

Should the Phils and Cards advance to the NLCS (best four-of-seven), the Cards would have the home-field advantage by virtue of winning their division even though the Hails own a better record. Since the wild card cannot have home field, this injustice just as easily can occur in the first round as well. Again, back to our scenario, only this time imagine the Giants have won one more game in the regular season to earn the wild card outright, with no tie-breaker against the Phillies necessary (meaning that the Phils, despite a better record than the Central-winning Cards, do not qualify for the post-season). Since the division champ with the best record (S.D.) and wild card (S.F.) are from the same division, the seedings would come out correctly, but only by accident, certainly not by some fool-proof formula. The Padres (best record) would face the Cards (fourth-best) and the Giants (second-best) would face the Braves (third-best). The Giants, however, by virtue of their superior ledger, should have home-field advantage over the Braves, but do not.


Finally, there is the matter of winning a division rifle and then being forced, in a short series where anything can happen, to redefeat the team that was bested over the course of a 162-game regular season. In 2004-05, the Cardinals won the Central with the division rival Houston Astros finishing as the wild card. They met both years in the NLCS, SL Louis winning the first encounter, Houston the second. Same thing over in the A.L. with the New York Yankees (East Division champs) and Boston Red Sox (wild card) in 2003-04, the '04 series being the infamous 3-0 collapse by the Yanks. Baseball as much as admits this latter flaw by virtue of not allowing division foes to meet in the first round, which, in turn, can skew the seedings.

All along this bumpy road, problems lead to solutions that create still more problems. Let's be clear: we understand that the economics of today's game necessitate keeping as many teams in the playoff hunt for as long as possible. Another realization is that, what occurred between 1903-68 (one regular-season champion in each of the two eight-team leagues meeting in the World Series) is relegated to the history books forever. Besides, baseball has not been unreasonable in its total of post-season participants. From 1903-60, it was two of 16. After expansion in 1961-62, it was two of 20. Further franchise-adding in 1969 made it four of 24 (two divisions of six in each league with the division champs facing off in the LCS for the fight to play in the World Series). Further expansion in the 1990s resulted in today's eight of 30 clubs making the playoffs--but the wild card system goes about it all wrong.

Here is one way out of this jam: do away with divisions and interleague play; send Commissioner Selig's Milwaukee Brewers back to the A.L. from whence they came; institute a balanced schedule for the two 15-team leagues by adding six games to the regular season (each club will play 12 games against its foes, making for an ideal set of four three-game series; two at home and two on the road); and have the top four clubs in each circuit qualify for the playoffs, with seedings of 1-4 and 2-3.

For those who doubt the integrity of this realignment, we offer a challenge: examine the final standings of all of the divisional and wild card races since 1995 and, applying this new formula, find even a single instance where there is a lopsided race for the final playoff spot or an undeserving team advancing to the post-season.

As for the practicality of turning a profit, just in case the six extra regular season games are not enough of an added moneymaker for the owners, expand the World Series to a best five-of-nine the way it was in 1903 and 1919-21, as the longer a series goes, the greater the chance the better team will triumph. In addition, play the extra two games by opening the W.S. at a neutral warm-weather site, then resume the standard 2-3-2 format in the respective competing dries. Admittedly, the World Series is not as popular as the Super Bowl, but the Fall Classic is a hot commodity--and would be even more so if there were earlier start times and a day game or two thrown into the mix (but that's an argument for another day). Plenty of cities would be bidding to play host to such a prestigious event. Plus, the fans in the towns whose teams make the Series will not get cheated out of seeing them in-person--even in a sweep--as happens with the Super Bowl.

There seems little question that by thinking outside the (batter's) box (pun intended) tradition can be melded with modem marketing so that everyone--owner, players, and die-hard fans alike--wins. Now that's a September (and October) song worth singing.

Wayne M. Barrett is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of USA Today.
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Title Annotation:professional baseball's wild card; Sportscene
Author:Barrett, Wayne M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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