Adding wild cards will increase late-season drama

Teams will grind harder in September to win division, not simply make playoffs

Hear that noise? That's the sound of baseball conservatives and traditionalists gnashing their teeth over the latest positive development for the sport.

When have we heard that before?

Major League Baseball, according to sources, is expected to announce Thursday that it is adding two teams to the playoffs for the 2012 season, giving each league a second wild card to create a 10-team October. The move was approved for 2013 at owners meetings in November, but it wasn't clear if logistical issues would allow it to be used this season.

Some are howling about Commissioner Bud Selig cheapening the playoffs, with the battle cry being the 162nd-game drama last September, when the Red Sox and Braves completed their shocking collapses with final-game losses that turned fatal when the Rays and Cardinals pulled wins out of their caps. But timing is everything, right?

Had the twin wild cards been in play last season, all four of those teams would have made the playoffs. But that confluence of events was a perfect storm that comes around about as often as Halley's Comet. Oh, and those games wouldn't have mattered at all if Selig hadn't added wild cards in 1995, another change that many fought.

"You would have thought I was un-American,'' Selig has said about that backlash.

The beauty of the new system is it will make life a lot tougher for teams that win the wild card, restoring the importance of a division championship.

While the details haven't been revealed, most expect MLB to adopt a one-game playoff between the wild-card teams that will act like the Game 163s we saw in recent years to break ties. Some were pushing for a best-of-three format, but that seems unlikely in part because general managers worry that too much time off would be bad for the other six teams.

In any case, the wild cards would be likely to use one of their best starters in that game, putting them at a deficit for the division series. That's the theory, anyway, as MLB looks to put a drag on the success of wild-card teams, prompting teams to play hard until they have a division title — not just a playoff spot — wrapped up.

In the 17 seasons MLB has had wild cards in the playoffs, 11 of 34 World Series teams have been wild cards, including the Cardinals team that upset the Rangers in 2011. That means almost one out of every three wild-card teams has won a pennant, truly beating the odds as they account for only one out of four playoff teams.

There's no reason a second wild-card team should reduce the final-week drama, and it might even increase it. The number of teams grinding into September will go up, and that should be good for fans.

If MLB had two wild cards in each league the last 16 years (excluding the strike-shortened 1995 season), it would have taken an average of 89.1 victories to win the extra spot in the NL and 88.9 in the AL. There would have been ties for the second spot in 2007 (Tigers and Mariners), 2002 (Red Sox and Mariners), 1999 (Mets and Dodgers) and 1996 (potentially a three-way tie between the Red Sox, White Sox and Mariners, although the Mariners played only 161 games).

Nine other times, the gap between the second wild card and the next-best also-ran was only one game. So that's 13 times in 17 years that the last spot would have been decided by the slimmest of margins.

There's nothing better than high-stakes baseball, and MLB is going to provide more of that with the new system.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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