A month left until the season comes down to one game

Had the one-game playoff existed in 2010, the Braves may never have had the opportunity to hoist Bobby Cox above their shoulders in celebration.

Whether we like it or not, the two Wild Card teams in each league will face each other in a one-game playoff to determine who advances to the Division Series against the each league’s top division winner. It’s a silly notion, but according to Bud Selig in a recent interview, it’s here to stay. Selig mentioned in that same interview that he initially fought for a 3-game series between the Wild Card teams. This far superior idea was nixed by those serving on the playoff expansion committee and the one-game playoff was chosen.

Before we even explore just how unnecessary a Wild Card playoff is, we must first dissect the lunacy that is the one-game sudden death game. For as long as any of us can remember, baseball was about playing a series. Fans, managers, players, and anyone who loves the game will tell you that all you need to do is win two out of three in a series and you can go home happy. It’s how the game operates during the regular season and during the playoffs. It’s unique among American sports because both regular and post depend on your success in a series. The one-game playoff dispenses with that idea completely, essentially erasing the proud history of the “series” in baseball.

Plenty of fans whined about the creation of the Wild Card in the mid-1990s, claiming that it ruined the game’s purity by letting a second place team from each league into the hallowed ground of October baseball. The big difference however was the creation of a five-game series to determine who moved onto the League Championship Series. The one-game playoff does no such thing to calm the nerves of baseball purists, because if you’re team wins 95 games and somehow ends up as a Wild Card, those 95 wins comes down to whether you can win number 96, even if you took the first place Wild Card spot by a comfortable margin.

No longer can that Wild Card champion spray champagne and beer throughout their clubhouse, because they now must play a 163rd game to gain admission into the Division Series. The 2010 Atlanta Braves wouldn’t be able to hoist Bobby Cox into the air after clinching the Wild Card on the final day of the regular season and had they lost that one-game playoff, Cox would never again gotten a taste of  October baseball again. It would’ve been a disappointment for him, the team, Braves fans, and ultimately the game of baseball.

As I mentioned earlier, Selig claims he supported and fought for a three-game playoff for the two Wild Card teams. If you want to expand the playoffs, this is how you do it. It essentially extends the regular season to 165 games for the two Wild Card teams, with WC #1 getting games 1 and 3 at home, and WC #2 getting to play game 2 at home. The series maintains the historic concept of having to win a series to move forward, and provides–in my opinion–more excitement that the one-game playoff.

There is one slight problem with the three-game series. It ultimately delays the start of the other playoff series and could stretch baseball’s postseason even deeper into the crisp air of autumn. It also has the potential of exhausting the Wild Card Champion, thus giving a much bigger advantage to the well rested top division winner awaiting their opponent. On the flip side, it could hurt the well rested division champion, who’s time away from the game might make them a little rusty while the newly minted Wild Card Champion remains hot and ready to pounce on their next opponent.

It’s a conundrum to be sure, but a full series maintains baseball’s greatest strength: it takes more than one game to crown a victor.

Now we must ask ourselves if the Wild Card Playoff is even necessary. Fans have grown to enjoy and love the best of five Division Series each year, and many of those series have provided some of the greatest games of the modern era. Major League Baseball–which allows the fewest number of teams into the playoffs of any major North American professional sports league–was looking for a way to allow additional teams into the postseason without extending the playoffs into November. A one-game playoff solves both issues, but it still remains unnecessary.

Sure, owners, managers, general managers, and players on the runner-up in the Wild Card race would love a shot at postseason glory, but they had 162 games to play slightly better than the team ahead of them and failed to do so. That’s why the regular season exists. Play better than your opponents and you can unlock the door that is October baseball. Through 1993 (when baseball had only two divisions per league) you had to win your division in order to get to the postseason. Twenty-eight teams in 1993 and only 4 get a chance to play for it all. When the divisions expanded to three per league in 1994, MLB had to figure out a way to even out the playoffs, and subsequently created the Wild Card and League Division Series as a way to double the number of teams in postseason play, guarantee millions more in revenue for the playoff teams, and millions more for the league in television and radio deals. It was a win-win.

Since then, MLB has only expanded to 30 teams and while the less fortunate teams have found ways to build solid clubs (look at the Tampa Bay Rays since 2008 for a good example), there second Wild Card is superfluous and remains the worst of Bud Selig’s creations since using the All Star Game as a way to determine which league has home field for the World Series. Eight teams is plenty in a league that demands a high level of success–even if only one game better than your closest opponent–in order to reach the cool, crisp, October nights of playoff baseball.

As a diehard Braves fan, I’d find it a shame that the Braves season (and Chipper Jones’ final one at that) may very well come down to a one-game playoff. Selig argues that owners wanted a way to make the division crown count for more than home field advantage during the Division Series. Adding a second Wild Card might incentivize winning the division more than it did in previous seasons, but it doesn’t necessarily make the second Wild Card a brilliant idea. If you’re going to do it, fine, but give me real baseball; give me a full series.

With more than a month left to play, a lot could happen and who knows, maybe Selig’s dream of fans loving the one-game playoff will actually happen. Something tells me, they’re going to love it as much as seeing a now suspended Melky Cabrera giving the National League home field advantage in the World Series this year.

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