Saturday, October 14, 2006

1968 - Thirty-eight years ago and, maybe only two nights away. The Cards whipped up on Steve Trachsel, as expected. They now lead the series 2-1, and may be looking forward to a rematch of the 1968 Cards-Tigers World Series -- one of the all-time best series. To survive and get their series back to New York, the Mets must hope that Oliver Perez lives up to his potential, instead of the poor imitation of a major leaguer he has been this year. Or, they have to hope that Tom Glavine can match his Game 1 performance in Game 5, Monday night, on only 3 days rest. Glavine, historically, has not been good in the playoffs on 3 days rest -- with a losing record and an E.R.A over 6 runs a game. This is where Thursday's rain-out really hurts the Mets.

Personally, I would have liked to see the Mets start Darren Oliver. It would have shown a little guts and imagination on manager Willie Randolph's part. I know Willie likes having Oliver as the long man out of the bullpen...and that makes sense during the long regular season. In the playoffs, you need to give your team the best chance to win every night. With Trachsel pitching, the Mets only chance was to outslug the Cardinals. But, they were completely shut down by Jeff Suppan. If the Mets are fortunate enough to get this game to seven games, I hope Randolph has enough sense to start Oliver. No one will criticize him for sitting down Trachsel. I know Randolph wanted to show loyalty to the veteran, but I wish he had taken a chance on Brian Bannister at the end of the season -- to see if he could get him ready to start.

Meanwhile, how cool was it to see the Tigers win? It's been a rough patch for Tigers fans. They lost one of the great stadiums in baseball and had to suffer through one of the worst teams in Major League baseball history a couple of years ago. How times have changed! It looks like another wild-card team is poised to win the North American professional baseball championship we call the "World Series." If the TIgers do win, it will make four out of last five Wrold Series for wild-card teams. Lately, it almost seems that the wild-card teams may have an advantage over the division winners. Of course, that's rubbish, but the Series wins by wild-cards does diminish the achievement and the importance of winning a division pennant.

According to an article in the New York Times, the MLB Commissioner, Bud Selig is expressing concern with the recent playoff success of wild-cards, and he is considering proposing changes to the current system. I'm not sure I like what Selig is proposing -- to give more of a home-field advantage to division winners playing wild-card teams. It sounded good to me, at first -- until I started to write this essay. When I had to make the case for Selig's proposal, I realized it isn't a very strong case, at all.

Under Selig's proposal, in the opening round, the wild card would only play one home game out of a possible five. This seems to unfairly penalize the fans of that team. They cheer for their team and look forward all year to the chance to watch playoff games. To limit that to one game seems to be a bad choice. It wouldn't really make a huge difference, either. The Tigers would have been playing Game 4 in Yankee Stadium, instead of Comerica Park, but the team would probably still have whipped the Yanks. In the National League, the Mets eliminated the wild-card Dodgers in 3 games -- so that the Dodgers only got the one home game.

The lesson in this year's playoffs is that the reason the Yankees lost had little to do with how many games were played in Detroit. They didn't take care of business in New York or Detroit, and they were thoroughly beaten by the Tigers. In contrast, the Mets swept the Dodgers in New York, and were able to finish them off in Los Angeles.

So long as baseball has a wild-card system, they risk having wild-card champions. The fact that it happens more often in baseball than in football or basketball has everything to do with the nature of the sport. A couple of hot players or pitchers can dominate a series in baseball against a team that might otherwise be the "better" team. In the other major team sports: the better football team is much more likely to win any playoff game, and the better basketball team is likely to win a series.

Baseball is much more like soccer in that a few key plays can determine the outcome of a game. That is why, in most countries, the soccer (football) champion is determined by having the best record over the long season. Tournaments are special events, and very enjoyable, but it is understood that the best team may be eliminated if it has an off day, or suffers a bad bounce or two.

Major League baseball did a pretty good thing with the wild-card. It generally makes the last month a lot more interesting for the fans of a number of teams. The flip-side is that wild-card teams might actually win the World Series, but that's the whole point! Otherwise, the wild-card chase wouldn't be so exciting. Besides, the wild-card system gave us the Yankees-Red Sox series in 2003 and 2004 -- two of the greatest playoff series ever. So, I say "Live with it, Bud."

**** Addendum **** I've posted a 'diary' entry about the wild-card proposal on the DailyKos site. Too much stuffy politics there, so I thought the site could use a lighter touch. My post has provoked a very interesting discussion -- and has led me to flesh out the argument still further. I think the thread on the DK site is a good read -- especially if my blog post has peaked your interest. Here's the link:

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