Expanded postseason a boon to baseball
One-game playoff will raise stakes for sport's stretch run
Some will say that the new playoff system pretty much gives the Red Sox and Yankees a free pass into the postseason.
That's a good argument, sort of. It's also an endorsement of the new format. All of a sudden, winning the American League East -- or any other division -- is way more important than it was a year ago.
If the Red Sox and Yankees both qualify for the postseason, one of them will end up in a one-game playoff to advance to the best-of-five AL division series. To have all that hard work come down to nine innings of winner-take-all baseball is the best part of having two Wild Card teams in each league.
Even better, the Royals and Blue Jays and Nationals have to be ecstatic. Suddenly, their path to the postseason became easier. If it's a one-game playoff, they're thrilled to have it.
Can you imagine how great it would be to see Kaufmann Stadium packed again, the way it used to be, with the Royals showing the world that they're back? The additional hope that Kansas City and other teams now have is why this is a great day for baseball.
There's nothing better than having huge stakes riding on a single game. If the Wild Card teams have already survived tight races to make the playoffs, they've probably been playing with playoff pressure for several weeks.
And then there's one more game when the season could be riding on every pitch, every grounder, every breath. What could be better than that?
Let's face it, we're only going to remember the winner of that game. The loser will be looked upon as a team that was just a little bit short.
This new format works for two reasons. One is that it does expand the playoff field. More teams will be in contention in the final month, which translates to more excitement, more tension, more of everything.
Best of all, it expands the playoff field by one team in each league while increasing the importance of the regular season. Despite adding two additional playoff teams, baseball will still have a lower percentage of its clubs in the playoffs than the NFL, NBA or NHL. But no team will want to settle for a Wild Card berth because those one-game playoffs are just too risky.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman created a stir several weeks ago when he said his team conceded the division title to the Rays two years ago because all that was on the line was "a t-shirt and a hat."
This is just the second time since 1969 that baseball has expanded its postseason. When the first two Wild Card teams were added in 1994, there was the usual hand-wringing about baseball devaluing its regular season, and oh my goodness, Kenesaw Mountain Landis has to be rolling over in his grave.
Oh please. Those Wild Card teams made the game better because more teams had something to play for late in the season and because the additional round of playoffs has given us all some terrific moments.
In the 17 seasons since the Wild Card became part of baseball, 10 Wild Card teams have been to the World Series and five have won. Meanwhile, the team with the best regular-season record has won the World Series just three times.
On this day of change, if you'd like to drink a toast to the 2002 World Series -- Giants and Angels, two Wild Card teams -- be my guest.
The new system is not going to be perfect in its first year. There are just two days off between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the Division Series. Teams will be pressed to get their makeup games played, and if a 163rd game is needed in either league, things will get really tight.
Despite the negatives, the owners and players decided it was worth doing immediately. It may not replicate that final day of the 2011 regular season, but that's exactly what the stakes will be: four teams playing for two spots in the next round.
Baseball is better off for this change, and the fall is going to be even better. Which is the way it's supposed to be.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.