Thursday January 20th, 2005

Of all the changes in sports, the one that fundamentalists have the hardest time accepting is the addition of the wild card in baseball. Not other sports -- just baseball. As the Yankees and Red Sox battled it out this season, you could hear the traditionalists whining that the competition sure didn't mean as much as it did in the days of yore because it was no longer do-or-die; no matter which team won the Eastern Division title, the runner-up was all but assured a spot in the playoffs as the league's wild card.

Never mind that fans were in a fever pitch whenever the Sawx and Yanks faced off. In fact, the anticipation that the two contenders might yet meet again in the postseason probably added to the excitement, but no, the purists remained in a pet that any runner-up could earn a second chance. It is heresy, sacrilege, a pockmark upon the face of our National Pastime! Instead, thank God that Major League Baseball finally caught up with the rest of the sports universe. As far as I'm concerned, if baseball had its wits fully about it, it would double the number of teams that make the playoffs. Only college football, which persists in selling itself down the river with a plethora of bowl games and resisting any playoffs whatsoever, is more benighted. Look at college basketball. The more teams added to March Madness, the more popular that championship became.

And three cheers for the National Hockey League! The Stanley Cup started out as an all-comers competition, so the NHL easily embraced the idea of playoffs for just about everybody. If you think playoffs are a sin against the natural order of humankind, please avert your eyes now when I tell you that the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 1938 after finishing with the sixth-worst record in an eight-team league, winning only 14 of 48 regular-season games. I consider the the '38 'Hawks the patron saints of playoffs.

Pro basketball also quickly understood how to keep fans hoping and cheering. In the NBA's first season, 12 of the 17 franchises qualified for the playoffs. That's the spirit! The NFL took awhile to catch on, not even having a championship game in its first 13 seasons. But today, there's more interest in the waning weeks of the NFL regular season about what wild-card teams might qualify, than who will win the various divisions.

Major League Baseball's long-time failure to welcome wild cards to the party was all the more inexplicable because playoffs probably saved the minor leagues during the depression. An executive in the International League named Frank Shaughnessy dreamed up the concept of having the top four teams make the postseason. It kept fans interested. It kept most of baseball in business.

Oh, in an ideal universe, the team with the best regular-season record would be the champion, and then its players would be lifted up to heaven in chariots of fire. But if sport was just about absolutes, then mathematics would pack stadiums. The doctrinaire fuddy-duddies who dislike baseball playoffs argue that a regular season provides the truth of superiority. Yeah, but the playoffs have more to do with luck and unpredictability and second chances, which is to say: fun. Play on playoffs, and the more the merrier.

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