Bravo to baseball. In a game where decisions often drag on like a 15-inning September snoozer between second-division clubs, this one was implemented a year ahead of schedule.
And it's the right call.
Expanding the wild-card entries from two to four in 2012 and creating a one-game playoff in each league to determine who advances to face division winners in the division series is not a perfect system. It's not totally fair. But the value outweighs the issues. The excitement will trump the inconvenience.
Baseball at any level is most enjoyable when one game determines who advances and who goes home. The seventh game of the World Series is better than the first. All the way down to the high school and youth levels, a single-elimination tournament adds drama to every pitch.
Pulses quicken. Nerves are jangled. The pitcher's grip tightens on the ball – if it were an uncooked egg, it'd crack and spill yolk on his hand. Instead of spitting on a slider down and away, a hitter can't check his swing. Moving a runner over feels significant. Dugouts get louder. Or too quiet. One bonehead decision and a season is extinguished.
Creating that kind of drama as the entry point to the postseason is a stroke of brilliance. That it's happening a year earlier than originally agreed upon by MLB and the players' union just shows how eager many in baseball were to implement to plan.
"A one-game playoff will start the playoffs in a very exciting manner," commissioner Bud Selig said.
Some players and team executives wanted a best-of-three series, noting that any time two teams play one game, the better team might not win. Yet the same is true even in a seven-game series. The best team on paper when the postseason begins rarely wins the World Series.
The Cardinals were the fifth wild-card team to win the World Series since the playoffs began to include eight teams in 1995, joining the Red Sox in 2004, the Angels in 2002 and the Marlins in 2003 and 1997.
No doubt, Game 162 last season wouldn't have been remembered as one of the most drama-filled days in major-league history. The Braves and Red Sox would have been the additional wild-card teams and their collapses only completed had they then lost one-game playoffs to the Cardinals and Rays, respectively.
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But, again, bravo to baseball for not allowing a singular set of circumstances on a spectacular day to sway it from creating a system guaranteed to generate two do-or-die ballgames every year.
There will be more races, more cities excited about their team's postseason chances deeper into September, more fannies in the seats and more dollars spent.
Another benefit is that winning the division will be appropriately rewarded. Under the old system, possible home-field advantage was the only incentive. Now the division winners will get a couple days to rest while they watch the wild-card entries slug it out and likely burn their No. 1 starting pitchers. That's fair.
Detractors have pointed out that under the new system a third-place team could win the World Series. It's true: The two non-division winners with the best records meet in the one-game playoff. Call it the American League East clause.
So what? If a third-place team catches fire and wins the wild-card playoff game, the division series, the championship series and the World Series, hoist that trophy high. All the 162-game grinders sitting at home nursing their sore oblique muscles can heal up and prepare for next spring.
Fans love an underdog, and the winner's journey will be a story worth telling.
The complaint with the most credence is that the top wild-card team might finish, say, four games ahead of the next wild-card team in the regular-season standings yet could be eliminated in one game. Is that fair? No way.
But is it unfair enough to pull the plug on the new plan? Not a chance. The Texas Rangers won six more regular-season games than the Cardinals in 2011. Anyone think that should have mattered more than the inches David Freese's drive landed beyond the glove of Nelson Cruz in the ninth inning of Game 6 in the World Series?
Didn't think so.
Win the division and the math doesn't matter. That's the message. Proof is the stipulation that a tie for the division title will be broken in a ballgame, not by head-to-head record. Reason? Under the new rules, it means a lot more to win the division and not become a wild-card entry. As it should.
MLB's blue-ribbon committee studying on-field improvements spent two years on the issue. The players' union jumped on board during collective bargaining last year. The Astros will move from the National League Central to the AL West a year from now to make the leagues equal in number and ensure competitive balance.
Ten of 30 teams will make the playoffs, still fewer than the 12 of 32 in the NFL and the 16 of 30 in the NBA and NHL. Nothing is watered down, nothing detracts from the season.
MLB is adding a single day of winner-take-all excitement to kick-start October, and as that day unfolds, a lot of fans will be on their feet, applauding.
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