Cheap thrills in a devalued sport

Six weeks ago, I did a post on the Detroit Tigers, who then had the best record in baseball. Since then, the Tigers have slumped badly. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins, who at one time trailed the Tigers by double digit games, have moved within a game-and-a-half of their AL Central Division rival.

The Twins assault on the Tigers would be an enormously compelling story if it were not for the fact that both teams are almost certain to make the playoffs. As it is, the teams are merely jockeying for position and home field advantage in the playoffs where they may or may not meet. Yawn.

This is the great mischief of a system that allows “wild card” teams into the baseball playoffs. Imagine if this system had been in place in 1951 when the New York Giants overhauled the Brooklyn Dodgers. Instead of being the “shot heard round the world,” Bobby Thompson’s legendary playoff-winning home run would have been the “shot heard round the borough.” (Would they even have had a playoff just to determine which team is the division winner and which the wild card team, or would they have used a tie-breaker?)

What does the wild card system give us in return? It gives us the cheap thrill of mediocre teams scurrying for playoff spots they don’t deserve. There is no longer any meaningful wild card race in the American League, but in the NL Philadelphia is dueling with San Diego/Los Angeles for the wild card slot. This undoubtedly is a matter of intense interest to fans in Southern California and the Phillie area, but there’s little reason for other baseball fans to feel excited — with a winning percentage of under .530, none of these teams really belongs in the playoffs.

JOHN demurs: Most years, I’d agree. But anything that gets the Twins into the post-season is good.

Actually, I think this is the inevitable result of expansion. When we were young, there were two leagues of eight teams each, and no inter-league play. So the best team in the American League played the best team in the National League, and everyone else watched. Now that there are around thirty major league baseball teams, it’s considered unacceptable for twenty-eight of the teams to be post-season bystanders, or for some teams to be buried in fourteenth or fifteenth place. So we have divisions of around five teams, so that half of the teams can be contenders.

But the teams play outside their division as much as they play in it, so in many seasons, we know that the wild-card team is actually a better team, that year, than one or both of the other division winners. The rationale for sending the division winners to the post-season, rather than the teams with the best records, is that the division winners “won something.” But, given the extent of inter-divisional play, how meaningful is it that a particular team happened to have the best record out of an essentially random selection of five teams?

For that matter, now that we have inter-league play, we can say with certainty that the American League is currently much stronger than the National. So why shouldn’t the World Series be played between the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees? Or Minnesota Twins?

It seems to me that a lot of the magic has been taken out of the post-season, but the wild card really just extends logic that is already implicit in expansion and the resultant proliferation of divisions.

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