The wild card is a misdeal

by Chris Haffenreffer | 9/27/00 5:00am

Monday evening, as I sat on my couch watching the Olympics (which I tend to constantly do), I noticed a teaser for the upcoming series between the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves. The advertisement glorifies the three game series as a pivotal point in the race for a berth in the postseason.

Now, as I write this column, Atlanta leads New York by four games, with six games to play (three against New York). One would think that this series is a truly important determinant of postseason play, but it really has no significance for either one of these teams.

The Mets have the wild card locked up with a six game lead, so whichever team finishes second in the NL East will most likely secure the wild card berth. The only real race in the National League at this point is for home field advantage; this battle being fought by St. Louis, Atlanta, and San Francisco.

The travesty of this situation is obvious. Instead of an incredible end-of-the-season series between two division rivals to determine the one team that continues into the postseason, we have a race for an almost inconsequential home-turf advantage.

The wild card has to be abandoned.

Rarely does it provide the entertainment of a division series, and most of the time it merely allow teams to coast through the final weeks of the season knowing they are secured a place in the playoffs. Regular season records therefore have become much less meaningful.

Many may quickly point to the excitement of the 1999 NLCS -- in which the Mets lost a close series to the Braves in six games -- as a validation of the wild card (New York won the wild card in '99). However, without the wild card, the final few weeks of the '99 regular season would have provided the same intensity of the playoff series, and we would have been spared the monotony of the NL East division race.

Bob Costas, in his book, "Fair Ball," expounds on the inanity of the wild card, citing many of the problems I have pointed out. Costas, furthermore, points out one specific example of the idiocy of the wild card that potentially could have occurred in '99.

The Mets and Reds tied for the wild card, but had both those teams each won one more game, or if Houston had lost one more game, there would have been two ties. All three teams would have tied for the wild card and the Reds and Astros would have tied for the NL Central. In this case Cincy and Houston would have played a one game playoff for the division title, with the winner advancing to the postseason.

The Mets would have clinched the wild card with a one-half game lead over the loser of the playoff. Baseball was a game away from a disaster that would have been hit hard by critics.

Therefore, there must be some sort of alternative to the present system, and, once again, I point to Mr. Costas' book. Costas realizes the necessity of three divisions in each league in order to provide a more extensive postseason in which more of the top teams are able to compete in October. However, such a division alignment can persist without the presence of a wild card berth.

Three teams from each league would make the playoffs, with the team with the best record getting a bye from the first round of playoffs. The other two teams would play a best-of-seven series to determine who would advance to the league championship series.

Like the wild card format, there would still be four key races as the regular season came to a close: three division races and a race for the best record in the league. However, unlike the wild card format, the new playoff format would force teams to continue to play solid baseball through the end of the season in hopes of obtaining the coveted first round bye.

Division races would become much more pressing, and fall baseball would become what it should be -- exciting.