Wild-Card Races Reshuffle Postseason THROWING FANS A CURVE

Article excerpt

THE box scores in newspaper sports sections are one of the last constants in a sports world turned upside down by player strikes, owner stubbornness, and fan rebellions. They are as much of a "must read" to voracious sports fans as op-ed pages are to political pundits. Of late, a new and unfamiliar chart has invaded this sacred realm: the wild-card standings. While often agreeing that an extended playoff format may generate new interest and revenues, baseball observers are divided about the new postseason derby. Some analysts say it will win back fans after last season's noxious labor dispute. Others argue that the complexity of wild-card races will simply befuddle the casual fan. Some share the sentiments of Murray Chass, a veteran baseball writer for the New York Times. "I never like to see anyone but the first-place team play in the postseason," he says. "But with no division races to watch {in the American League}," because those division-titles are virtually sewn up, "the wild-card race will keep fans of teams who would normally be out of the race coming to the ballpark." To Mark Newman, a senior editor and writer of The Sporting News, the advent of wild-card teams has only created confusion. "It has become obvious that the average person has no idea who will play whom in the postseason," he says. "It's like trying to figure out a National Football League playoff tie-breaker. I thought that was bad, but this is worse." Some view the complex formula used to determine the pairings and playing sites as illogical. It certainly does not sit well with many Cleveland fans: The Indians own the best record in the major leagues but will not even enjoy the home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. "I think it's a travesty because we need every advantage we can get," says Doug Cameron, a long-suffering Indians fan. "I really don't know how the playoff format works," Cameron says, "but being a traditionalist, I think only those who win something should be allowed to keep playing in the playoffs. …