More Wild Cards, Fewer Pennant Races

When future baseball fans look back on 2011, they will probably recall several things about the season. Some fans will recall that this was the year Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit, Jim Thome hit his 600th home run, and Mariano Rivera set the all time save record. It is possible that a rookie who made his debut in 2011 will go on to become an all time great, which would change how this season is remembered, or that a trade made at the deadline will have implications for the next 15 or 20 years.

It is almost certain, however, that two specific things will be remembered. First, the Cardinals World Series victory will be remembered because World Series winners are always remembered. The dramatic game six of the World Series, in particular, will be recalled for years and will take its place as one of the most exciting games in baseball history. The second thing fans will remember as 2011 recedes into history will be the collapses of the Red Sox and Braves. Both these teams seemed like shoo-ins for playoff spots as August came to a close, but their records of 11-16 and 9-18 in September cost them these berths. For much of September the races for the last wild card spots injected real excitement into what was otherwise a dull month.

While these collapses were undoubtedly agonizing for the Red Sox, Braves and their fans, on some level they were good for baseball. They were obviously very exciting for fans of the Rays and Cardinals, but they also provided the kind of quirky and implausible story line complete with firings and post-mortems that make the overall narrative of a given season so fun for so many fans.

If the expanded wild card system, which will be in place by 2013, had been in place this year, this second story, which may have been the defining baseball story of 2011 would not have occurred. The Red Sox and Braves, as the fifth strongest team in each league, would have won the last wild card spot. The exciting month of September in which four teams played meaningful games every day would have been replaced by five teams jockeying for post-season position. Rather than more than fifty games about which fans of four teams cared, there would be two very brief series at the end of the regular season.

As the number of teams in the big leagues has grown, determining how many teams should be in the playoffs, and what the playoff structure should be has been an evolving challenge. It is apparent that with thirty teams, it is no longer appropriate to simply award a World Series spot to the winner of each league as was done until 1969. It should be equally apparent that making it too easy to secure a post-season spot is not good and that if the post-season drags on too long, only fans of the teams involved will watch the games.

It is in this direction in which MLB is now erring. Since the current playoff system has been implemented, there have been no pennant races that are remembered by fans other than those of the two teams involved. There has been nothing comparable to the Cardinal-Phillies race of 1964, the Giant-Dodger race of 1951, the Yankee-Red Sox race of 1978 or the 1993 race between the Giants and the Braves which has been called “The last Pennant Race.” The pennant race, once the signature characteristic of the baseball season, has largely fallen victim to the wild card system. The 2011 season was an exception demonstrating that exciting wild card races are possible and potentially memorable. Under the new system, all we can look forward to are races for the fifth playoff spot about which it will be very difficult to get excited.