August 24, 2011
OK baseball fans, let's not kid ourselves. Six weeks from now, we are going to be looking at Boston, New York, Texas, Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and one other team (San Fran or Arizona) in the playoffs. Wild Card proponents always want to pat themselves on the back for ensuring that a worthy team like the Red Sox or Yankees is now assured to get in regardless if they lose their division. The problem? It doesn't always follow the assumption that September games will mean more to more teams and, in many cases, it lessens the impact.
Instead of Atlanta desperately trying to chase Philadelphia, they just need to maintain a Wild Card lead. Instead of an electric September on the East Coast with Boston and New York battling it out for a division title and a playoff berth, both teams are already content in knowing they are playoff bound and can begin resting players as needed. Meanwhile, the only pennant races left to focus on that actually matter are the ones with less overall talent. Whether San Francisco or Arizona advance, it's understandable that the nation won't care either way. Why? Because Philly is the cream of the NL crop, so watching two teams battle at a level significantly below the Phillies just isn't as interesting. That's not to say that the World Series is a foregone conclusion (just look as last year's Giants team or the 2006 Cardinals), but rather that there is nothing overwhelmingly compelling about two above average teams battling for what an eighth spot in the playoffs.
In the AL Central, the pickings are worse, and while three teams still believe they are alive, the White Sox haven't been able to shake loose of .500 for 127 games, so there is no reason to believe they can catch a team (Detroit) currently 11 games over .500. Cleveland has hung tough, but Detroit is just a little better and has the pitching experience.
For all of the perceived good the Wild Card has done for baseball, it has eliminated the excitement of pennant races as we once knew it. Sure, it shifts the excitement to fans of worse teams trying to sneak in and it doesn't necessarily eliminate the excitement of elimination but rather suspends it until October. Is that really what we want as baseball fans? One more reason to not care about baseball in September?
Many may argue that I'm a traditionalist and am ignoring the fact that MORE fans are interested in September baseball because MORE teams have something at stake. Are we really more interested though? Like the Arizona/San Fran example, fans aren't running through the streets celebrating a Wild Card berth. Players aren't pouring champagne over each other for winning a Wild Card spot. We have diminished the playoff experience and the elation that goes along with reaching the playoffs. Each additional round (talks of another Wild Card are progressing) lessens the importance of the next. When a World Series game is the 14th playoff game played by a team that month, the shine rubs off the apple a little and the feeling that "there's always tomorrow" resonates too strongly.
In the NBA, the casual fan is completely exhausted by the sport when the Finals roll around. Ditto for the NHL. The NFL and March Madness support the multiple round format, but their "one and done" equation keeps fans from suffering sport lethargy. Baseball's uniqueness of needing a long series but keeping playoff membership at a minimum has disappeared. The results have been mixed, but in a sport requiring 162 games to decide things, they might want to make sure those games matter to someone.