Thursday, August 18, 2011

R.I.P. Pennant Races

I know I'm in the minority here, but I still don't like the wild card. I know, I know, the Red Sox (probably) don't win the 2004 World Series without it, and if they don't win that, who knows if they have the financial boom that allows them to win in 2007 and assemble their 2011 roster. I don't care. The wild card has made the regular season boring. Why? Because pennant races are between mediocre teams.

The last great pennant race was in 1993. The San Francisco Giants won 103 games. They missed the playoffs though, because the Atlanta Braves won 104 games. In the days of yore, you had to win SOMETHING to be allowed to make the playoffs. With the wild card, as you know, the best second place team makes the playoffs.

The problem is, in the olden days, the best races were between the best second place team and the team in front of them. Now? The Red Sox and Yankees will both win somewhere between 98 and 102 games, unless something goes wrong for one of them. Who will win out? IT DOESN'T MATTER. Neither team really cares whether or not they win, because whoever loses will win the wild card by something in the neighborhood of 53 games. Instead of an awesome fight down to the wire between two elite teams, we're treated to the pathetic limping Cleveland vs. Detroit playoff race, where each team vies night in and night out to find new ways to lose but stay in the race because the other did the same.

I'm reminded of the end of the 2005 season, where the Red Sox and Yankees went into the final weekend, playing each other. The Yankees were one game ahead. Instead of being the most intense series of the season though, it was probably the most lax. The Red Sox were 2 games ahead of the Indians for the wild card, so, once they won Game 1 of the series, they were assured of victory. The Yankees won on Saturday, so they went into the final day of the regular season one game ahead of the team they were playing. That shouldn't be a meaningless game. But it was, as this box score will attest. We've gone from "THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT" to "it's the last day of the regular season, better get in some swings for Felix Escalona."

I know the wild card is supposed to create more interest, and maybe it has. After all, if the Indians are out, maybe they don't make that move for Ubaldo Jimenez. Maybe they do though, because maybe they can see past this season. And don't give me the tired "noone in the AL East will have anything to play for" mumbo jumbo. Despite playing with the Red Sox and Yankees, the Rays have won that division two of the last three years. The Indians won 97 games in '07, as many as Boston and two more than New York. If anything, the wild card has made it easier for Boston and New York - those two teams have won the wild card in uncompetitive races in four consecutive years.

Maybe I'm just being a cranky old purist, but I don't see how this has made baseball "better." The division series have had a few memorable moments - the A's series of collapses, the Jeter/Giambi phantom tag, the Braves/Astros marathon, the Tigers dispatching the Yankees, Halladay's no-hitter. But most years, they seem to be pretty blah. They make a ton of money though, and we're not going back. I've accepted that.

There has been talk of adding another wild card team. If we're going to keep the three division format, I'm fine with that. I have no problem with the loser of Red Sox/Yankees being forced to play a one game playoff against an inferior team, especially since, this year, that inferior team would be starting Justin Verlander, Ubaldo Jimenez or Justin Masterson. Meanwhile, the winning team would be setting their starting rotation. That, right there, will incentivize winning the division.

Why not go to a four division per league format though? Right now, we have 30 teams, and talent markets in China, Korea and even India which seem to be growing rapidly. People may wax about the golden ages, but because of internationalization, we have more talent in the major leagues than ever before. Sure, some managerial tendencies may mean the 12th best pitcher on each team faces more batters than he should, but let's not miss the big picture. There is easily enough talent to support two new expansion teams. Since the start of the expansion era, the longest stretch between new teams being introduced was 16 years. It has now been 13 since Arizona and Tampa Bay came into being. We're ready for two new American League teams?

Where, you ask? Well, I'm going to be steadfast in believing one should be in Brooklyn, as I talked about previously. Where else? What about Indianapolis? They never get talked about as a destination, but consistently are near the top in minor league attendance, and the football and basketball teams there have done well. Then, to even things out, let's move Tampa to the NL and bring Milwaukee back to the AL, where they were for 27 years until Bud Selig tried to create a pretend rivalry with the Cubs:

AL East
Baltimore (sorry guys, but you kind of brought this upon yourselves)
New York

AL Central

AL Midwest
Kansas City

AL West
Oakland/San Jose

NL East
New York

NL South
Tampa Bay

NL Central
St. Louis

NL West
Los Angeles
San Diego
San Francisco

Yes, I know that creating four division winners will likely lead to a lesser team making the playoffs. Personally, I'd prefer a mediocre team in the playoffs and a better regular season myself. An plus, with balanced divisions, the unbalanced schedule would now not be such a detriment - you wouldn't have a situation as we did this year, where the Brewers have had to play series in both Yankee Stadium and Fenway, while the Cardinals didn't have to play either team at all.

So, thoughts? Do like the six division format, with the wild card team? Does the idea of another expansion make your skin crawl? Ideas for a better spot than Indy for a new team? Charlotte? Jersey? San Juan?!? (International expansion WILL happen in the next 30-50 years, so why not now?) I'm open to suggestions here. I just know that Septembers have gotten awfully boring, and I don't like it. We shouldn't need to have less excitement in September in order to have more in October.

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