Fixing the Wild Card

September 26, 1999

As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I should be happy with the current wild card system. Boston has now made it to the post-season for two consecutive years, without even winning our division. The problem is that the division crown has become meaningless.

The Red Sox have been within striking distance of the Yankees for all of September. But nobody cares, because we've had the wild card spot pretty much locked up since the first week of the month.

The problem with most "fixes" that I've seen proposed for the wild card is that they are reactionary. Some people want to go back to 2 playoff teams per league. But the wild card is actually a good thing. It's created some great playoff baseball. As a Yankee-hater, I still enjoy re-living the 1995 ALDS, when the Mariners lost the first two games and then came back to win 3 straight, including a walk-off double by Edgar Martinez an the 11th inning of Game 5.

And I don't want to see baseball go to 4 divisions per league. That will just increase the chance that a .500 team makes it to the playoffs.

The current concept of having "division winners" and "wild cards" is good thing. We just need to restore the importance of winning the division. Under the current system, a second place team has about the same chances of reaching the World Series as a division winner. What's the point of playing 162 games (and about half of those against division rivals) if it doesn't matter whether you win your division?

So, I took some time to come up with an original proposal — and I like it better than any of the ones I've read:

Step 1) Replace the current Wild Card system with two Wild Cards. Because these are the 4th and 5th teams in each league to earn a playoff spot, we will call these teams #4 and #5.

Step 2) As with the current system, the division winner with the best record is the #1 seed, the division winner with the next-best record is the #2 seed.

Step 3) On the first day after the regular season, team #5 plays a one-game playoff AT team #4.

Step 4) The winner advances to meet team #1 in a best-of-five series.

In other words, this is identical to the current system, except that each league adds a 2nd wild card team which faces off against the 1st wild card team in a one-game showdown.

Some advantages:

a) Division races gain importance. Settling for the wild card means there's about a 50% chance you'll get knocked out in 1 game. Even if you win, you have to hop a plane and go face the best team in your division the very next day.

b) This partly addresses the frustation that the current Wild Card system is "unfair" because the Wild Card has as good a shot (or better) at making it to the World Series. No team wants to face a 1-game elimination playoff, no matter how good their best pitcher is (moreover, it's unlikely a team's best pitcher will be rested for this game).

c) This adds to post-season excitement, and TV ratings, without lengthening the playoffs.

d) The one-game playoffs create instant drama to kick off the post-season. It's like scheduling a couple of Game Sevens right at the beginning of October. Baseball needs this, because a lot of fans are losing interest in the playoffs. It's ridiculous that the Braves would have thousands of empty seats in the playoffs because "it's only the first round".

At least from Bud Selig's point of view, this system seems to be an improvement on all grounds. It restores the importance of each division race while also increasing fan interest -- because even more teams now have a shot at the post-season. In fact, although we are adding 2 teams to the playoffs, we actually increase the chance that each division winner has of reaching the World Series (because we disrupt the starting rotations of the wild card teams -- putting them at a disadvantage in the ALDS and NLDS).

Clay Dreslough
Sports Mogul Inc.