The wild card play-in will be exciting and fun and all kinds of wrong

What are the playoffs, really? What is their purpose? It's easy to say that they exist to determine the best team in any given sport, but I'm not really sure that's the best description. In baseball, at least (which is where our American version of playoffs come from and what I'm talking about today, so let's stick with baseball), the playoffs started as a way to determine a champion between two otherwise uncomparable teams. 

The history of the World Series pre-1903 is long and complicated, but the short version is that the National League had existed for a long time (even in 1903!) and the American League came along in the 1890s and tried to establish itself as a "clean" version of baseball by stealing all of the National League's players (and my use of scare quotes here isn't quite fair, because by "clean" I actually mean less on-field criminality than in the National League, which was basically a condoned form of assault before about 1900 and really, most baseball players at that time were ridiculous old-timey movie villans with huge mustaches and the owners were really only rich, educated ridiculous old-timey movie villians with huge mustaches and also funny hats). 

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The two leagues hated each other for a few years before finally in 1903, the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates (who were the dominant team of the National League at the time, having won pennants in 1901, 1902, and 1903; the 1902 Pirates went a ridiculous 103-36, which is the equivalent of 120 wins in a 162 game season) agreed to play the Boston Americans in a best-of-nine series. In Pittsburgh it was always implied that Barney Dreyfuss did this out of the goodness of his heart to foster a spirit of cooperation between the two leagues, but I kind of think that maybe he just wanted to rub dirt in the faces of what he most likely thought was an inferior American League team. 

Anyway, Boston won that series 5-3 and the World Series has happened every single year since then, except in 1904, when John McGraw was a jerk, and in 1994, when everyone involved with baseball was a jerk. And for a long time, this made at least some sense; the American League and National League existed inside of their own little vacuums and never, ever overlapped. Teams from each league played long, balanced schedules, and after 154 (or, later, 162) games, the teams with the best record from each other played each other for the World Series. Occasionally, one game playoffs happened and these were fine because they only took place when 154 or 162 games weren't quite enough to separate two teams. Since the two leagues didn't overlap at all, it was more or less impossible to say which champion was better than the other after the regular season. A seven-game series doesn't really tell you which team is better, of course, but it gives a satisfying and exciting conclusion to a season and it's a reasonable way to declare a champion.

Baseball went on like that until 1969 (which is to say, at least for a few more years, most of baseball history) when expansion — both geographically and numerically — lead the powers that be to split each league up into two divisions and to have the two division champions play each other in a League Championship Series. This is mildly problematic, from the perspective of trying to figure which team is empirically the best. Each league had an East and West division, and while teams played their own divisions more often than the other, the divisions still overlapped with the other and so by the end of the year if the NL East winner had 89 wins and the NL West winner had 99 wins, you'd have a reasonably good idea that the NL West winner was better than the East winner. That made it a bit of a travesty when, say, the Mets beat the Reds in the 1973 NLCS, especially because the NLCS was only best-of-five back then and using five games to erase a seventeen game difference that bore itself out over 162 games is, taken all by itself, kind of ridiculous. To compensate for this, baseball bumped the LCS to best-of-seven in 1985 and it's pretty impossible to argue that the results weren't great in the early 1990s with the Braves and Pirates dueling in two NLCS deathmatches and some classic World Series in 1991 and 1992 and 1993.

And so in response to that, baseball decided in 1994 that it was again getting too big and that they needed three divisions and the addition of a third division would allow for one wild card. This inherently admits that all divisions are not created equal, and it re-introduces the short, best-of-five series back into the equation, which seems even more unfair in an era of five-man rotations. Shortly after that, interleague play was introduced, which meant that the leagues overlapped. Suddenly it was possible to know which league was better than the other league, and so it became possible to compare teams from each league against each other. What started in 1903 to determine a champion between two otherwise entirely incomparable teams had morphed into something much different and by 1997, the purpose of the regular season had changed. Instead of separating out the one best team from each league, it was determining the four best teams and treating them as equals even if their records and on-field play suggested otherwise.

The wild card introduced a new problem; after a few years, teams realized that if they had a big lead in the wild card race, they had no need to try and win their division. The regular season began to lose even more meaning. From 1995-2001, only one wild card team (the 1997 Marlins) made the World Series. Two wild cards made the World Series in 2002, one made it every year from  2003- 2007, and another made it in 2011. In addition to that 1997 Marlins club, wild cards won the series in 2002, 2003, and 2011. 

Baseball's response to this was interesting; they've wanted to expand the playoffs for quite some time in response to the sprawling NHL and NBA playoff seasons, that keep their leagues in the headlines for two months after the regular season ends. Baseball's long regular season means that it's buffetted on both sides by bad weather in most of North America, though, and so they can't really expand the playoffs by a huge margin. The decision was to add an extra wild card to each league and to have the two wild cards play a one-game play-in for the right to be the One True Wild Card. On its face, this puts emphasis back on the regular season because there is now a distinct advantage to winning your division. This played out perfectly in the American League; the A's fought like mad to win the AL West and avoid the play-in game, while the Yankees had to battle down to the last day of the regular season to make sure that the pesky Orioles didn't catch them and force them into a one game playoff with good teams from Oakland or Texas. This was the goal all along, and heck, the Rangers and Orioles have the same record and they'd be playing in a one-game playoff today even if 2012 had happened in 2011. Exciting regular season finish, one game playoff, everyone wins!

Except in the National League. In the National League, the Braves have been an excellent baseball team all year. They've nipped at the heels of the Nationals since Day 1 in the NL East, they won 94 games, they're a good baseball team. The Cardinals won 88 games, they struggled with injuries all year, it took them three weeks to put away the Pirates after the Pirates' season was officially marked as dead, they let the Brewers back into the playoff race even though they were under .500 on September 10th. They're a pretty good team, a decent team. And if they win this afternoon, the declaration that the National League makes is that 88 wins is as good as 94 wins. 

This is problematic because nothing about baseball is designed to be decided in one game. Nothing about baseball's really designed to be decided in five or seven games, either, but at least a multi-game series prevents a fluke from being decisive. Every Philip Humber has a perfect game somewhere inside of him, but that doesn't make him Sandy Koufax. When you schedule a one-game playoff, you've exposed the teams in it to the whims of fate, and you've basically invalidated the whole point of having a 162-game season, which in modern baseball is to stratify teams so that the best teams have the best chances in the playoffs. 

I'm not being solely a purist or a pragmatist here, I'm being both. Baseball's long regular season is the most meaningful regular season in all of sports, because it lets the fewest teams into the playoffs. The implied point of this is that if you play 162 games, you don't need to let 16 of 30 teams into the playoffs because you know which eight are the best. That should always be the case. Scheduling a one game playoff between two teams that didn't finish the 162-game season with the same record is aiming for a cheap, manufactured thrill. It's trying to catch last year's lightning in a bottle, then claiming that the bottled lightning is the same as the real stuff. Doing that throws out the regular season; it says that one game can overturn 162. It will almost certainly produce some memorable moments and the excitement will be there every year, but is that worth giving up one of the things that makes baseball different from other sports? I'm not so sure that it is. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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