A wild success

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

At the time, he was ridiculed, derided and lambasted by all those baseball purists who too often have their heads in the sand and their hearts in Ebbets Field.

But no matter the puffs and pouts, baseball commissioner Bud Selig instituted the wild card into baseball's playoff system as a way of jolting the game. In 1995, the first season after labor strife canceled the World Series, it got its first chance.

Ten Septembers later, baseball is more energized than a double shot of lightning with an espresso chaser.

This is not to say Selig is the greatest commissioner in the history of sports – although hockey fans would trade Gary Bettman for him quicker than a Johan Santana fastball. Nor is it appropriate that baseball has a team owner also serve as commissioner.

But the howling protests against the three-division format and the wild card have been rendered the ramblings of "those were the days" dreamers.

It is the last week of September and what we have right now is 12 teams in 12 cities still thinking playoffs. We have multiple meaningful final weekend series. We have stages being set for some epic backyard League Championship Series – Yankees-Sox (again), Cubs-Cardinals (for the first time), Giants-Dodgers (another shot heard 'round the world?).

Most importantly there is buzz from coast to coast, corner to corner and in all the big media markets that make a sport surge. And if you don't think it is important to matter in New York and Los Angeles, well, just ask hockey.

One year after arguably the most thrilling postseason in its history, baseball again is white hot.

At the risk of inciting the wrath of all those baseball "purists," some of the credit has to fall to none other than one Allan H. Selig.

It is possible much of the original criticism came because it was Selig's idea. He gets ripped even when he doesn't deserve it. The beating he took when the 2002 All-Star game ended in a tie was breathtaking considering it was truly a non-event. Why anyone over the age of 11 cares who wins an exhibition game is beyond rational thought.

While there would be some pretty good divisional races if we still had the 1993 system in place, baseball wouldn't be this big or this good.

In California, which one out of every eight Americans calls home, five teams still are in the hunt.

In the Northeast, the potential of another Boston-New York ALCS drama has the region holding its breath. In Houston and Chicago and, until recently, Dallas, wild-card fever had people thinking pitching, not pigskin.

In the early 1990s much of the nation would have turned their entire focus by now to the NFL. Football's popularity will never stop, but baseball is a major presence again.

Teams in six of the nation's seven largest markets (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Dallas) were in the playoff hunt in the final week of the season. The lone exception, No. 4 Philadelphia, had the Phillies in it until mid-September.

Critics still contend that the wild card bastardized the process of earning a playoff spot. You used to have to win something to make it.

But the two-division system, brought on by expansion in 1969, meant champions of weaker divisions were already messing with that integrity.

In 1985, both the Yankees and the Mets won more than 60 percent of their games but neither qualified. Kansas City and Los Angeles, who both had worse records, did.

Was that good for baseball?

Consider Boston. Heading into the final weekend, the likely AL wild card team has a better record than four division leaders. Under the old system the Sox would have missed the playoffs for the ninth consecutive year, extending the real source of their "curse" – proximity to the Yankees.

Instead a franchise which sold out all 81 home games will get a chance, perhaps, to rivet the nation with another clash with New York. Or we may get treated to a NLCS featuring bitter rivals St. Louis and the Cubs or the Dodgers and Giants, none of which was possible in the good old days.

But that is next month. The regular season still has four days left and little is settled. The final weekend promises to be memorable.

Ten Septembers into the wild card system, you can't hear critics through the cheers.

Take your bow Bud Selig.

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