I’ll admit I wasn’t wild at first about the expansion of the Major League Baseball playoffs. Of course, I am a traditionalist from way back; heck, I will still rail about the evils of the designated hitter to anyone who will listen.
So these crazy new gadgets such as wild-card playoff teams and interleague play have long been a source of heartburn.
However, I’ve certainly warmed up to the idea of the extra playoff team in each league beginning this October. As a matter of fact, I wish this change had been done from the beginning of the wild-card era, when MLB split each league into three divisions in 1994 and had its first wild-card teams enter the postseason the following season (thanks to the 1994 playoffs being scrubbed by the players’ strike).
The primary benefit to the new format is that it once again places a premium on winning the division. Before 1994, the only route to playoff baseball was opened by winning the division. Second place got a team bupkus, other than heartbreak.
Baseball’s history is littered with teams that were placed forever on the “close but no cookie” list. The 1993 San Francisco Giants were the best team in the four-division era (1969-93) to miss the postseason. San Francisco, led by MVP Barry Bonds—in his first season by the Bay after leaving the Pittsburgh Pirates as a free agent—won 103 games and finished one game behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League West. The Braves went on to play the Philadelphia Phillies, who at 97-65, won the NL East by three games over the Montreal Expos.
In the divisional era, only two teams won 100 games and didn’t win their division. The heartbreak club is led by the 1993 Giants but also includes the 1980 Baltimore Orioles (100-62, three games behind the New York Yankees in the AL East).
Moving back to the advent of the World Series in 1903, the list expands to include the 1909 Chicago Cubs (104-49, six games behind the Pirates in the NL), the 1915 Detroit Tigers (100-54, 2½ games behind the Boston Red Sox in the AL), the 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers (104-50, two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL), the 1954 Yankees (103-51, eight games behind the Cleveland Indians in the AL), the 1961 Tigers (101-61, eight games behind the Yankees in the AL) and the 1962 Los Angeles Dodgers (finished 101-61, then lost a best-of-three playoff for the pennant to the Giants).
With the arrival of the wild card, however, the value of a division title was lessened. The then-Florida Marlins have never won a division title, but are two-time champions of the World Series.
The value of a division title was never made more moot than in 2010, when the Yankees were perfectly content to let the Tampa Bay Rays waltz to the AL East crown. The difference between the two positions was a matchup in the Division Series with the Minnesota Twins or the Texas Rangers.
The Yankees were 4-2 against Minnesota that season and had beaten the Twins like a drum in the postseason, posting Division Series wins in 2003, 2004 and 2009 while winning nine of 11 games.
Against the Rangers, however, the Yankees had split eight games.
While on paper, the Rangers and Twins were just about equal, the Yankees were more comfortable with Minnesota and made no bones about the fact they were perfectly willing to let Tampa Bay take the division crown.
Yankees’ general manager Brian Cashman admitted earlier this year that the wild-card system at the time made winning the division “nothing more than a T-shirt and a hat.”
But with the new format pitting the two wild-card teams in each league against each other in a one-game, winner-take-all matchup to determine which one advances to the Division Series, suddenly winning a division title means something again.
No team wants to battle for six months and 162 games only to have their playoff lives come down to a one-and-done.
The one trade-off is that last season’s dramatic final day wouldn’t have happened under the new format. The Red Sox and Rays would have met in St. Petersburg, Fla., in the AL wild-card playoff and the Braves would have gone to St. Louis in the National League.
But that seems a pretty small price to pay in order to restore some prestige to the title “Division Champion.”