Baseball’s Wild Card Fever
By Rob Ficiur
Baseball’s Wild Card fever came (and went) last week. In professional sports there is nothing as dramatic and engaging as a one game playoff.
In 1994 Major League baseball added a Wild Card team to their playoff system. As they did this, they moved from two to three divisions in each league. The Wild Card made four teams in each league in the playoffs. Baseball has been the slowest of the professional sports leagues to add more games (and more drama) to their post season. Prior to 1994 there was one round of playoffs before the World Series championship. Prior to 1969 there was no playoff round, the winning team in the National and American Leagues went directly to the World Series. The more playoff rounds the more potential drama, (unless it is too long and we stopped watching a month into the two month marathon).
Have the Wild Card teams been the weak sisters of baseball playoffs? No. In the 21 years since the Wild Card playoff system has been implemented, a Wild Card team has won the World Series six times. That means that 28% of World Series champions have been Wild Cards teams; while only 25% of playoff teams are Wild Card teams. Even though a Wild Card team will almost never have home field advantage, they have won slightly more than their share of World Series’ championships.
Starting in 2012 Major League added the second wild card team to the playoff menu. When I first heard that the new playoff format consisted of a one game playoff, I thought this was a gimmick with no real entertainment value. I was as wrong.
Why the Wild Card “season” become has must see TV? Here are my observations:
1. One game playoffs are unpredictable – Any team can win any game. A team that just squeaked into the playoffs can begin a big run in this one game show down. The 2014 Kansas City Royals are an example of a team that won the Wild Card and went to Game #7 of the World Series. They could just as easily have lost their 12 inning Wild Card came to Oakland.
2. One day attention span needed – Even if you are a diehard fan, it is hard to watch an entire seven game series. Life and other demands take us away from pivotal games. For the Wild Card, all I have to do is watch that game. The entire series begins and ends in three hours.
3. Superstars rise to the top – In 2014 San Francisco Giants starter Madison Bumgarner pitched a nine inning shut out to help his team defeat the New York Mets. Bumgarner went on to pitch 21 almost perfect innings to become the World Series MVP. This year Bumgarner pitched another nine inning shut out in the Wild Card game. Will history repeat itself?
4. Suddenly I care – In 2014 I did not care if Kansas City or Oakland won the Wild Card game. However, when I tuned in and found a tie game in extra innings, suddenly I cared. Because it was a one game winner take all, I had to watch. To my surprise, suddenly I found out that I did care who won.
This year Blue Jays fans got a playoff round full of memories in their Wild Card win over the Baltimore Orioles. Here are the memories that I will have of this week’s baseball drama
-Twice at the end of the game, the Blue Jays had runners in scoring position. All they needed was a hit. When they missed those opportunities, I feared they used up all their chances.
-Where is the ace reliever? I knew that Baltimore‘s Zack Britton could be the first reliever to win the Cy Young award as best pitcher. He set an all-time record for earned run average of 0.54. So where was he? I watched the game; and as we got into extra innings, I kept wondering when they had used their ace? Turns out the manager was saving him for later. The Orioles lost without using their best pitcher. Baseball fans will be second guessing this move forever.
-In 2015 Blue Jays fans will remember Jose Bautista’s home run bat flip in the final game against Texas. In 2016 Edwin Encarnacion’s walk off homer had a bit of a bat flip. (Edwin tossed the bat in the air, is that a bat flip?)
It was interesting to watch the Blue Jays’ post game celebration. I thought to myself, you only won one game. You hope to win three more series, why the big celebration? Had they lost that game, the season would be over. As it is the Wild Card winner has as a good a chance as any team to win the World Series; the hope goes on.