Wild Card Series?

THE Philadelphia Phillies and the Toronto Blue Jays split the first two games in what is shaping into a classic World Series battle. Sadly, it's the last of its kind. The Phillies and Blue Jays went to the Series this year because they won the most games in the regular season. In baseball the team with the most wins always, well, wins. That's what a race is all about. Right?

Not any more, not after Sept. 9. That was the day baseball owners quietly voted to ``realign'' the game - add a division to each league and add a new set of playoffs to include a ``wild card'' team. The wild card is the runner-up with the best overall record. Under these rules, the National League West race this year between the Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco Giants would not have come down to the last regular season game. The Giants would be in the playoffs, and could still beat the Braves!

Some say this seems to cheapen the classic pennant race, and we tend to agree. Club owners are eager for more cities to join the playoffs. More fans will enjoy more games - not to mention spend more on tickets, TV, and concessions. The business of baseball is business. Football, basketball, and hockey have expanded playoffs, and wild cards do help equalize weak and strong divisions.

Yet baseball is not like other sports. Its pace and strategy are different. It is a character test based on an inning-by-inning performance over five months and 162 games. Those who argue against expanding the playoffs (as if there were a choice) are not necessarily hidebound purists who can't face change. There is still something to be said for reward based on merit achieved over time. The regular season, the bulk of a performance, means something. Winners are the teams that win most from April to October. This is a kind of clarity life seldom provides, and in the sport of baseball it makes for better drama at the end. Everyone knows the score. Hot streaks aren't enough. Tragedy and joy are starker - ask Atlanta manager Bobby Cox.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffor coined the phrase ``cheap grace'' to describe the popular notion that one can cut corners in the traditional struggle for salvation. OK, baseball isn't theology - though some follow it with utter religiosity. But it will be sad if in search of more fun and profit, future World Series lack a certain grace.

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