No matter what happens on Thursday night at Fenway Park, the Red Sox will come out of their series with the Yankees with a small lead for first place in the AL East with just under four weeks to play, setting the stage for what could be the greatest divisional race we've seen in nearly 20 years.
Not so much.
See, while the Sox lead by just 1 ½ games, tonight's outcome doesn't carry very much meaning. As it stands, both of the longtime rivals have large leads in what really matters, the race for postseason berths. The second-place Yankees have a 7 ½-game lead on the Rays for the wild card, nine over the Angels. The Red Sox' cushion, of course is a game-and-a-half larger. Just as in 2010, when the Rays and Yankees were similarly situated with a month to go, what could be a dramatic, thrilling, attention-grabbing division race is neutered by the wild card.
What hurts this year is that unlike 2010, when there was an interesting three-team race for two spots in the NL, the AL East doesn't have the rest of baseball to make up for it. The smallest lead in any of the other five divisions is 3 ½ games, and the Braves have an 8 ½-game lead in the NL wild-card chase. We're looking at the real possibility of a pennant chase with no chase, just division leaders and comfortable wild-card teams cruising to the postseason.
Now, this is frustrating for fans -- as well as for the game's administrators on Park Avenue -- but it is unavoidable no matter how you set up your league structure. You can draw the line for postseason eligibility however you want, but you cannot control the distribution of wins in a given season. In some years, the standings are going to shake out in a way that doesn't allow for drama. There's nothing about a two-division system, a three-division system, a wild card, that can get around this. As a general rule, lowering the bar for playoff entry should make it more likely that there will be a race for the last spot -- the closer to .500 you draw the line, the more teams will be around that mark -- but that means nothing in any given season.
There are many people who want to solve the "problem" of the last two AL East races by adding a second wild-card team to each league. The idea is that by forcing the wild-card -- the first wild-card -- from a guaranteed spot in the Division Series to a coin-flip round (where one or three games would decide advancement, not much different from flipping a coin), there would be enough value in winning the division to force teams to fight for the crown. As so often happens, MLB is trying to fix a problem of its own creation. In 1994, when they first instituted the wild card as part of a radical realignment and playoff expansion, they sent the message that pennant races and division titles -- the trappings of September -- meant less than the short-season tournament of best-of series -- the trappings of October. A division title was no longer an accomplishment in and of itself, but rather, just another playoff spot, as it is in the NBA and NFL. When the Florida Marlins won the World Series as the wild card in 1997, this idea was cemented -- what mattered wasn't what you did in the regular season, what mattered was what you did in the postseason.
Even changing the rules won't make "a division title" valued for itself. It will just be another battle for seeding in the postseason tournament. While it will certainly make teams behave differently, it won't be because they want to hang the "2012 NL East champion" banner, but because they don't want to end up in the coin-flip round. There's a difference to those two things.
The solution to bringing back meaningful pennant races isn't more wild cards, it's fewer. Make the only path the postseason a division title, rather than allowing second-place teams a back door into October. There are a number of ways to do this -- including two-division leagues of seven or eight teams -- but in the current format, that would mean six, rather than eight, teams advance to the postseason. The team with the best record in each league advances to the LCS, while the other two division winners play the Division Series. You lose two playoff series, six to 10 games a year. However, if you think about the current Division Series setup, many of the games are played in low-value time slots because of the need to schedule them all in a short timeframe. You would eliminate the 10 a.m. PT and 10 p.m. ET starts, so the economic cost would be low.
The gain, though...the gain would be significant. You would get back September in many years, and more critically, you would get back great Septembers. You would get back what we lost in 2010, what we're losing this year: the two best teams in a league battling for a division title, battling to make the playoffs. With due respect to the wild-card races that we have seen, to the AL Central and NL West battles to get to 88 wins, nothing galvanizes the country like the daily spectacle of two great teams trying to beat each other out. Baseball traded that, nearly 20 years ago, for the possibility that more teams would stay alive late in the year, and that the extra round of playoffs would make up for the lost drama, and they've lost that bet.
MLB has spent decades trying to be more like the NBA and NFL. It hasn't worked. The solution is to embrace what is great about baseball, which is a long and meaningful regular season and the concept of a pennant race. MLB, under Bud Selig, sold September for October. Undoing that, by eliminating the wild card, is the key to making baseball's pennant races matter again.