|Don Mattingly's Dodgers could benefit from the extra wild-card slot this year. (US Presswire)|
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Smartest thing baseball did was not -- repeat, not -- expand the playoffs by adding one more wild-card slot in each league.
Easily the smartest thing baseball did, once this whole deal became a fait accompli, was make it a one-game, winner-move-on match between the two wild-card teams.
Short and sweet. Instant drama. Saddles the wild-card club with a deserved handicap. Gifts the division winners with a deserved reward. And those division winners don't have to sit around for four or five days waiting for a wild-card preliminary round to play out.
But let's back up for just a minute.
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Expanded playoffs, and what might have been
There undoubtedly are lots of folks who hate the entire idea of expanded playoffs. Because more than in any other sport, traditionalists wrap their arms around this game and purists doggedly protect their turf. Which is a great thing. This passion, emotion and love of its die-hards are the game's conscience. (Or, at least, that voice in the back of the conscience that nags the body to do the right thing, which it sometimes does and often doesn't.)
Nobody wants to see baseball turned into the NBA, which, last I checked, allows its clubs into the playoffs the way bouncers wave pretty ladies past the rope line and inside a nightclub overcrowded with men.
Nobody wants to see baseball watered down like the NHL, whose bar is so low come playoff time I'm guessing clubs are seeded by wind-chill readings.
I hear you. Whenever commissioner Bud Selig and the suits even hint of expanding the playoffs, I blanch. Cover my ears and start hollering, "La La la La la" so I can't hear anything.
But there is no avoiding this. An industry that's already bathing in some $7 billion in revenues annually sees an opening for a few more bucks and, well, you know who wins that one.
So here we are.
And if they're going to expand the playoffs, this is the best possible scenario.
A one-gamer between wild-card teams taxes the pitching staffs just enough to give the division winner the advantage it should have won over 162 games, but not enough of an edge to make it hopeless for the wild-card team.
At the same time, it does not significantly alter a postseason that already is long enough.
Much as many of us might not want to see expanded playoffs, tagging the wild-card team with a handicap is way overdue. In 17 seasons since the inception of the wild-card, a total of 11 of 34 World Series teams have entered October as wild cards (including last year's Cardinals). Sorry, that just ain't right.
"It gives the advantage to the team that wins the division," says manager Don Mattingly, whose Dodgers could benefit from the extra wild-card slot this year. "That's the biggest key, because you may have to use your best pitcher to get in. ... And then you may end up starting the playoffs with your No. 3 guy. But it's fair."
The addition of two teams means 10 of baseball's 30 teams will make the playoffs each fall. Yes, 30 percent is pushing it. But if you're at all in the mood to grade on the curve ... in both the NBA and NHL, it's 16 of 30. What do you have to do to not qualify, produce a note from your doctor?
One big drawback to expanded playoffs is the idea that it could completely wipe out a classic season-ending sprint like we had last year, with the Rays and Cardinals passing the Red Sox and Braves on the season's final day. Most agree it was the greatest ending to a regular season in baseball history. Yet if the new expanded playoff format was in place, there would have been no drama: The Red Sox and Braves would have been in, too.
Thing is, you can't script this stuff, any of it. Some years you win, some years you lose.
But say one thing about this new format: It guarantees Game 7-type drama right out of the box, similar to a few tie-breakers in recent years.
Who can forget Game 163 in Colorado in 2007?
Who can forget Game 163 in Chicago in 2008?
"It was like a Game 7," says catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who came to the plate four batters after Jim Thome drilled a leadoff homer in the seventh inning against Nick Blackburn that delivered the White Sox a 1-0 win over Minnesota.
Who can forget Game 163 in Minnesota in 2009?
"We played the Tigers, and it was unbelievable," says Dodgers' reliever Matt Guerrier, who worked the eighth inning for the Twins in their 6-5, 12-inning heart-stopper of a win that night. "Both of us at times felt like, 'Oh my gosh, we're going to win!' And, 'Oh no, we're going to lose!' There were so many back and forths."
The players are completely on board with the idea, which had been negotiated in the Basic Agreement last year to start in 2013. But Selig wanted to move this year, and the players were eager to as well.
"From what I've heard, most of the players were like, 'Hey, let's get this done,'" Dodgers starter Aaron Harang says. "It was going to happen for sure next year. The players were pushing for it this year."
"You know what?" Hairston said. "I think it can be kind of cool."
As someone who embraces new ideas begrudgingly more often than not ... I think he's right. At the very least, it is miles better than what could have been.