Divided We Stand

October 12, 2015

THE PIRATES and the Cubs finished this season with the second- and third-best records in major league baseball, respectively, and their reward is a one-game wild-card playoff against each other. This is not fair, but as every Cubs fan already knows, life is not fair.

The Cubs reside in baseball's best neighborhood (Wrigleyville) and its toughest (the National League Central). The 100-win Cardinals relegated Chicago and Pittsburgh to the wild card. This, we are told, is an outrage wrapped in an injustice, an affront to our Founding Fathers, and it has spurred talk of getting rid of divisions altogether. Just seed the teams by record and be happy about it.

This is already happening in the NBA. Starting next spring, NBA teams can hang a DIVISION CHAMPIONS banner wherever they like, but it won't necessarily get them an extra home game in the playoffs. The NFL has a similar problem: Every year, it seems, some 8--8 or 9--7 team hosts a playoff game simply because it won a lousy division.

So what should leagues do to fix this problem?

Here is an idea: nothing.

When the Dodgers were trying to wrap up the NL West this year, their quest was more compelling because they had to fend off the Giants. As the Cubs try to build a dynasty, they must first conquer their longtime tormentors from St. Louis. The Yankees and the Red Sox begin every season knowing they can't both win the AL East, and that helps make the rivalry special. And this year Blue Jays fans had to get a little extra joy from wresting the division title from New York and Boston.

If you want, you can put 30 teams in a single league, have them all play an equal number of times and seed the postseason based on wins and losses. That might be a "fairer" way to determine a champion, but it wouldn't be as entertaining. Clinching the second- or third-best record in a supersized league is not nearly as satisfying as winning a division, and it never will be.

This country was built on a few simple concepts: freedom of speech, freedom of religion and loving thy neighbor, except when you play thy neighbor in a sporting event, at which time you want to punch him in the face. Where would we be as a nation if Packers fans did not hate the Bears, Alabama fans did not hate Auburn, and Philadelphia fans did not hate everybody? We might not even be a country. We'd still be under British rule, and who knows what language we would speak?

English?

I guess you're right. Anyway, the point is: Rivalries make sports fun when they otherwise wouldn't be. And everywhere you look, they are getting devalued. Missouri and Kansas stopped playing each other. So did Texas and Texas A&M, and Oklahoma and Nebraska. And even the ones that continue are not the same—thanks to expansion, Michigan--Ohio State and USC-UCLA can only decide half of a conference title in football.

We should keep rivalries as relevant as we can. It should hurt Green Bay fans a little more when Brett Favre signs with the Vikings of the NFC North. The current Clippers-Warriors tussle would not be as heated if they did not share a division. Sometimes a rivalry rises above regional alignment—like Lakers-Celtics or, more recently, Patriots-Colts. But divisions usually play a big part. And they only matter if some kind of postseason carrot awaits the winner.

Sure, the NL playoffs would seem more equitable if the Pirates and the Cubs did not have to play the wild-card game. But a little quirkiness in the system is not just O.K., it's good. It's an acknowledgement that sports exist for some reason apart from determining a single champion. And if Pittsburgh and Chicago fans wonder why their teams couldn't get into the postseason's main draw, they have an answer: The rival Cardinals blocked them. And what a beautiful thing that is.

Clinching the second- or third-best record in a supersized league is not nearly as satisfying as winning a division title, and it never will be.

Should MLB and the NFL get rid of divisions altogether? Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @Rosenberg_Mike

PHOTOCARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)