Baseball's wild-card mania

Thanks to this year's down-to-the-wire races, even doubters of the wild card are cheering

Keeping up with baseball's dizzying wild-card playoff races this season requires constant scoreboard vigils. Consider this: At one point this weekend, five National League teams were within 1-1/2 games of one another - and they were all vying for just one spot in the postseason.

Even in the American League, where the Boston Red Sox have a commanding lead in the wild-card race, two teams, Anaheim and Texas, remain alive, each within nine games of claiming the AL berth.

The tight races all but guarantee a down-to-the-wire finish during the season's final three weeks of regular-season play.

Both races represent an emphatic validation of the wild-card concept, which was derided by many in and around baseball when Commissioner Bud Selig persuaded owners to adopt it in 1993. The wild card ushered in extensive changes, realigning each league's divisions and doubling the number of postseason qualifiers to eight teams (six division winners and two wild-card entries).

"I hated it [when the wild card was added]," says Buster Olney, author of "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty." "But it's absolutely great. The races would long since be over, but, instead, we're going to have this great five teams-for-one-spot situation in the National League."

Mr. Olney has a point. Prior to 1995, when the wild-card format debuted, the five NL teams in the wild-card fray - San Francisco, Houston, San Diego, Florida, and the Chicago Cubs - would have been written off long ago.

That's because most division races have all but been settled. Consider Houston and Chicago. Both clubs play in the NL Central division, where St. Louis has held a steady 15- to 17-game advantage over its closest competitor for much of the past month.

With the wild-card format, fans in those cities and others now have hope - and a reason to keep following the home team.

"I thought, at first, that the wild card might taint the postseason," says Milo Hamilton, a 20-year broadcaster with the Houston Astros. "Now I think it's a good thing. It's done wonders for attendance late in the season."

Mr. Hamilton and many others in the baseball world say it's all but impossible to imagine the game without its current playoff format. As pro football has staked a clear-cut claim as the nation's most popular spectator sport, the wild-card format has helped baseball regain a hold on the fans' attention after the fall football kickoffs.

"I don't see how you can look at it as anything but keeping the interest alive, keeping fans going to ballparks, waiting for highlights, and watching scoreboards," says Joe Buck, a broadcaster at Fox Sports, which televises the playoffs and World Series this year. "It's terrific."

Few doubters now

Commissioner Selig briefly toyed with the idea of expanding the playoffs beyond the current eight-team format, but has since scrapped the idea. Baseball still demands more of its playoff entrants than any other major sport, as only eight of 30 clubs qualify. The NFL (12 of 32), NHL (16 of 30) and NBA (16 of 30) all have lower thresholds for reaching the playoffs.

Despite the initial skepticism over the wild card in baseball, just one owner opposed it: George W. Bush, then one of the owners of the Texas Rangers.

This season, though, Bush and other Lone Star State fans may be the concept's biggest champions, as both the NL's Astros and the AL's Rangers are in the wild-card hunt. The president's former franchise may be the biggest surprise of all.

The Rangers finished in last place each of the past four seasons. They entered this season with a makeshift pitching staff and without star shortstop Alex Rodriguez, traded in the off-season to the New York Yankees in a cost- cutting move. A crop of scrappy young players such as Michael Young and Hank Blalock has proved to be a plucky bunch.

Nothing succeeds like success

Mr. Buck points to AL wild-card leader Boston as an example of why the expanded playoffs have succeeded. The Red Sox were 30 games above .500 this weekend, but still trailed the Yankees in the AL East.

If Boston played in any other AL division, it would be in first place. The wild card solves such dilemmas. In fact, each of the past two World Series champions, the Anaheim Angels in 2002 and the Florida Marlins last year, reached the playoffs as wild-card teams.

"I like to see the best team over 162 games win the World Series," says Allan Simpson, editor of Baseball America. "But there's no doubt about it, the wild card has helped baseball, and it's kept a lot of people interested in the season for an extended period."

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