Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I'm Not Wild About That Extra Card

I miss the American League East. I don't mean the bastardized version we are witness to now. I mean the OLD AL East -- the one the Tigers once occupied, along with the Blue Jays, the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Brewers, the Indians, and the Orioles. I miss the late '80's and 90's, when it seemed like the divisional crown got passed around like a peace pipe. To wit:

1982 Milwaukee
1983 Baltimore
1984 Detroit
1985 Toronto
1986 Boston
1987 Detroit
1988 Boston
1989 Toronto
1990 Boston
1991 Toronto

That's ten seasons, and five different winners, including a different one every year from 1982-86. You gotta love it.

I'm sorry, but I miss the old two-divisional format. It was the closest thing we had to a "true" pennant race since, well, the ONE divisional format.

The '68 Tigers were the last true pennant winners, if you ask the oldtimers. MLB split itself, like an amoeba, into four divisions for the 1969 season -- partly due to expansion. Each league grew to 12 teams in '69, and I suppose the powers that be felt uncomfortable with league standings that would have a dozen teams listed on top of each other. They felt -- and I suppose you can't blame them -- that putting twelve teams together would be akin to placing both legs into one stocking. But more than that, the idea of a 12-team division, with perhaps half the league out of contention by the All-Star break, probably gave the owners the creeps.

The solution? TWO divisions, six teams each. Winners play each other in a best-of-five championship series to determine the league pennant. So long, traditional pennant race. Hello, sweating out mini-series -- if you're the odds-on favorite.

The 1984 Tigers won 104 games. The AL West champion Royals won 84 games -- a 20-game differential. Yet because of baseball's silly back-and-forth home field advantage at the time, it was the West champion's turn to host Games 1,2 and 5 (if necessary). So the Tigers, 20 games better than Kansas City, had to start the ALCS at Royals Stadium. Fair? Hardly. Sure, the Tigers swept, but they should NOT have started that series on the road. They started the World Series away from Detroit, too.

I'm ranting about this because I don't think MLB should have a wild card. And here's why.

In 1978, the Yankees made their incredible comeback from 14 games behind in July to force a single-game playoff for the AL East flag with Boston. That game, of course, is remembered for Bucky Dent's homerun that won it for New York. Loser go home in that instance. So the Red Sox, despite their 99-64 record, would watch the AL playoffs from home, just like the rest of the 13 teams.

With a wild card, the Red Sox would have qualified for the postseason despite their loss to New York in the playoff. So how thrilling would that "Bucky Dent game" have been, indeed -- knowing that whomever lost was still in the playoffs?

In 1967, the Tigers were involved in a terrific pennant chase, along with Boston and Minnesota. The race wasn't decided until the final hours of the season, when Dick McAuliffe hit into a game-ending double play against the Angels, sealing the pennant for the Red Sox. It was the only DP McAuliffe hit into all season. But with a wild card, that game-ending DP would have been a whole lot easier to swallow.

The Tigers are now embroiled in what should be a nip-and-tuck, heart-pounding tug-of-war (is that enough hyphens for one sentence?) with the White Sox, and maybe the Twins, for the AL Central crown. But it isn't, quite, because the wild card is currently placing the White Sox in the playoffs anyway, whether they overtake the Tigers or not.

I know why baseball is doing this, and why they won't ever rescind it: MONEY. The more teams they can involve in a "pennant" chase -- no matter how paper it might be -- the more fan interest in those cities and, presumably, the higher the attendance. In the National League, this means that teams with records below .500 are actually in the wild card race. In mid-August.

But even though I know why, it doesn't mean I have to like it.

Sure, if the Tigers were to ever qualify for the bastardized playoffs via the wild card, I'd be cheering them just like everyone else. Yet even if it were to benefit our boys, I'm still against it in principle. The AL has 14 teams, the NL 16. Why can't we go back to four divisions? That'd make it seven per division in the AL, and eight per in the NL. Do-able, because from 1969-93, that's how it was done, pretty much, anyway.

Baseball somehow managed to survive about a hundred years without a wild card. Was it broken?


Ozz said...

Think about how many years baseball survived without things like night baseball, franchise shifting and expansion, free agency, the DH, artificial turf and domed stadiums and stadiums with retractable roofs.

We live in a different world than the one that guys like Mr. Cobb and Mr. Greenberg lived in, and so it goes without saying that as time goes by, we're going to watch a different game than the one those guys and their peers played.

With every subsequent change, a little purity has been sacrificed in the name of progress and evolution. Whether or not it's been for the better depends on one's perspective. Who knows what kinds of changes are in store for the generations of fans that follow us?

I'm not really sure what my point is or if I even have one. I guess that even though Ty and Hammerin' Hank may not immediately recognize today's game of baseball on the surface, at it's heart, it's still the same game. I guess I enjoy it so much that I'm willing to accept whatever changes come its way, whether they immediately seem worth it or not.

Greg Eno said...

Well, there's a difference between "getting used to" and "liking"....but I understand your point.