In a few short hours, the Orioles and Blue Jays will play an elimination game. Tomorrow the Giants and Mets will do the same. It’ll be tense. It’ll be exciting. And, as it has often been since the second Wild Card and its attendant one-and-done format were introduced in 2012 . . . it’ll be weird.
Weird because it’ll be radically different than what most of us think of when we think about baseball. A game of series. A game where depth matters a whole lot. A game where there is almost always a new day tomorrow. A game where starters don’t get yanked in the second inning and the intensity doesn’t start at 11 only to get cranked higher as the game goes on.
I’m not complaining about that. I used to. If anything I’d rather see a series expanded to nine or ten games rather than shrunk down to one, so when the Wild Card format was changed four years ago, it was jarring to say the least. I’m not such a purest that, like some, I considered it an abomination or anything, but it has been hard to get my brain around it. Temperamentally speaking I’m a regular season guy, not a playoffs guy. I like my baseball a little on the lazy side and the dramatic arcs to have a bit more continuity. As I wrote when the new format was announced five years ago, switching from a long, 162-game season into a one-game playoff is akin to having marathon runners stop at 26.1 miles and then decide the winner of the race with a double-dutch competition.
But if we’ve learned anything from the past four years of some pretty exciting Wild Card games — as well as the crazy game-163s and final day games that led up to the Wild Card game’s creation — it’s OK to just go nuts sometimes. To let go of what your ideal of a given situation might be and go with things the way they are. No, a one-game Wild Card is not the way I’d prefer to set up the playoffs, but it has some good points, such as making winning the division matter more and keeping the playoff schedule more compact. And, as I said, it’s often super exciting in its own right. At the same time it’s wholly unrealistic to suggest going backwards and making fewer playoff teams, because Major League Baseball is never, ever going to do that, so what’s the point of complaining?
On an even more basic level, arguing that the Wild Card somehow sullies some notion of “pure baseball” is beside the point. Baseball already knows this. When the expanded playoff format was first announced in 2011, Bud Selig admitted that baseball’s “partners” had asked for this, meaning that the decision had a lot to do with an exciting TV event and hype and commercialism. The ability to sell a winner-takes-all game with 100% certainty is important to TV, which has never been great at selling baseball. And lest you think this is my usual brand of anti-corporate complaining, it’s not. It’s a valid goal for baseball to have. It’s a business and generating interest in the playoffs and making its broadcast partners happy are things that business should be doing, at least within reason.
A one-game Wild Card is not ideal, but it has been a reasonable addition to the playoff schedule. It has been exciting far more than it hasn’t been and it’s good for baseball overall, even if it’s a bit unfair for the two teams involved and somewhat jarring for a guy with my temperament. When the starter is removed in the second inning tonight or tomorrow, the bullpen gets emptied, starters begin warming up to come in in relief and teams are pursuing all-or-nothing strategies way, way earlier than they normally would, I’ll just have to take another sip of whatever beverage I’m enjoying and remind myself that this is how we do things now and that the world is not ending because of it.