Magazine article USA TODAY

Poisoned Pennant Races: It May Be the Summer Game, but Baseball's Siren Song Most Often Is Sung Come September as the Fight for the Flag Nears Its Apex-Too Bad the Wild Card Makes for Such a Hollow Tune

Magazine article USA TODAY

Poisoned Pennant Races: It May Be the Summer Game, but Baseball's Siren Song Most Often Is Sung Come September as the Fight for the Flag Nears Its Apex-Too Bad the Wild Card Makes for Such a Hollow Tune

Article excerpt

WHILE figuratively beating a dead horse is an exercise in cliched excess, the process can be therapeutic--and, who knows, perhaps the baseball brass could have its collective common sense spring back to life--so we'll keep on swinging and making our wild pitches for sanity concerning the madness known as the wild card.

At times, it's tough to distinguish what's more frustrating: the inherent unfairness of how baseball picks its playoff participants or the collective complicitness of the media and fans to this cruel hoax on post-season justice. After all, when designing a playoff system, no matter what the sport or number of clubs qualifying, shouldn't the object be to get the best teams (as determined by their won-lost record) into the post-season tournament? Yet, season after season, some team(s) sit home while others with worse winning percentages advance.

In 2009, it was the Texas Rangers, runners-up in the American League West to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who were forced to take a seat while the Central Division champion Minnesota Twins (whose record was inferior to Texas') merrily joined the post-season party after knocking off co-titlist Detroit in a one-game playoff--and this Minny-Motown matchup is a good jumping off point to demonstrate the many glitches in this misguided playoff system First off, Minnesota hosted this one-game showdown by virtue of winning a coin toss several days before the regular season ended. This is an annual ritual that takes place on the QT between the Commissioner's office and the various clubs that could be headed for a final-day tie for a playoff spot--but why flip a coin when head-to-head regular-season results would be a much fairer determining factor as to home-field advantage? Remember, being division rivals, the Twins and Tigers did play each other 18 times during the season, which, incidentally, brings us to a bigger problem.

With three divisions in each league, intradivisional competition constitutes a bulk of a team's schedule, meaning that those competing for the fourth playoff spot in each league--the second-place team with the best record (aka the wild card)--are not playing the same schedule, giving clubs in weaker divisions an advantage. For instance, in mid August of this season, the National League's Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies (East), Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals (Central), and San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants (West) were neck-in-neck for division titles or a wild card berth. The West, at that point, had four teams well above .500, the East and Central two winning clubs apiece--while the Central (although these firings are cyclical) is loaded with terrible teams. Consequently, the Red Legs and Redbirds certainly will not be seeing red over competing against cream puff opponents down the stretch while S.D. and S.F. will be doing just the opposite.

While Commissioner Bud Selig and his braintrust were ill-advised to have a coin flip decide home field in case of ties, that, in reality, is not such a big deal, since success and failure at least are decided on the field, not by some tie-breaking formula h la the National Football League or National Hockey League. Still, even when baseball does it right, it still can't seem to get it right. Winning percentage is what determines the order in the standings. Back in the early part of the 20th century, before the advent of commercial air travel, rainouts and games called because of darkness (remember, old-time ballparks had no lights) sometimes proved too inconvenient or expensive to be rescheduled, so the final standings might have teams playing an uneven number of games--thus the winning-percentage standard to determine pennants.

In those instances when there were ties for the flag, the extra game(s) played--the American League used a one-game showdown in 1948 (Cleveland Indians-Boston Red Sox), while the N.L. employed a best two-of-three in 1942 (St. …

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