MLB's Wild-Card Game Is Loved and Loathed


BOSTON — The wild-card game is not fair. Long live the wild-card game.

Those might be contradictory opinions, but it all depends on your perspective. If you’re a player, you hate it. If you’re a viewer, you love it.

“Is it fair? No, it’s not fair,” Curtis Granderson, the former major league outfielder, said on Tuesday. “Is it fun? Absolutely.”

The Yankees and the Boston Red Sox were scheduled to play the American League wild-card game at Fenway Park on Tuesday, followed on Wednesday by the National League game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium. The winner of each advances to a division series, meaning that the Dodgers are already facing elimination despite tying their franchise record for victories with 106.

The reason is a quirk: As great as the Dodgers were, they played in the same division as the San Francisco Giants, who were one game better. The Cardinals needed only 90 victories to share the stage.

“If I’m playing on a team that just won 100 games, I want to have the right to be out there and kind of stretch my chances for at least three games — not just one and done,” said the Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, who will analyze the playoffs for TBS with Granderson and Jimmy Rollins. “The efforts of my entire team, my entire organization, going down the drain by losing one game? One little mistake?”

Martinez won his only championship with a wild-card team, the 2004 Red Sox. Back then, baseball gave a wild-card berth to just one team in each league, and the playoffs started with the best-of-five division series. The format changed in 2012, with each league staging a knockout game between two wild cards to open the postseason.

The games have often brought high drama: rollicking comebacks in Kansas City and Washington, a walk-off homer by Edwin Encarnacion in Toronto, two road shutouts by Madison Bumgarner for the Giants. Whatever you think of the format, its pull is irresistible.

“I’m going to watch both games, and I’m going to enjoy them as a spectator,” said Bud Black, who has won a wild-card game and lost another as the Colorado Rockies’ manager. “But when it’s over that quickly — bam, you’re done. You’d like to have a chance to show why you got into the playoffs with at least three games. I think that’s the viewpoint of any player, manager, general manager, coach. But from a fan’s standpoint, they’re great.”

Should baseball keep the wild-card game because it’s so much fun? Or kill it because it’s a gimmicky way for a team to risk its season? Ultimately, it seems, neither question is relevant.

As Major League Baseball and the players’ union negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, they will strongly consider expanding the playoffs. Creating more content is an easy way to raise revenue, and last year’s 16-team field — a cash grab after a 60-game regular season — offers a template.

“I thought last year was pretty cool,” Black said. “I know it was a different year with the pandemic, but if somehow through negotiations we could shorten the season a bit — not much, 152, 154 games, whatever the number is — add another team or two and play two out of three, I think that works. And maybe with that time frame, not as many days off between series. Make it like the regular season: You play consecutive games, you get on a plane, you play the next day. Those things could be worked out, so you don’t drag it out a great deal.”

For most of baseball history, the regular-season champions of each league advanced directly to the World Series. The 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers (104-50) had an even better winning percentage than this year’s Dodger team, but lost the N.L. pennant to the Cardinals.

“I was with the Cubs when we were nosed out on three or four championships, but this is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through,” Dodgers second baseman Billy Herman said in the next day’s Brooklyn Eagle. “When you win 104 games and finish second, there isn’t anything to say.”

The format finally changed in 1969, when baseball split into four divisions and added the League Championship Series. That was the only playoff round through 1993, when the Giants won 103 games but lost the N.L. West by a game to Atlanta.

“You just accepted it,” said Black, who pitched for the Giants then. “We were conditioned to that: You either win your division or not. But it was such a good year and we played so well, we did feel a little shorted.”

While Black said he felt for the 2021 Dodgers, others from his era do not. Ken Singleton, who retired last weekend as a Yankees broadcaster, once played for six second-place teams in an eight-year span with Baltimore. In 1980, the Orioles won 100 games but lost the A.L. East to the Yankees; they would have welcomed even a one-game playoff ticket.

“Who knows, we might have gone on to win the World Series — but there was no wild card in those days,” Singleton said. “The Dodgers are in the playoffs. We weren’t. So I don’t have much sympathy for them.”

Four teams have used the wild-card game to launch a run to the World Series, with the 2014 Giants and the 2019 Nationals winning the championship. Singleton said he hoped the playoff format would stay as it is, because the postseason can stretch to November already. He does not mind that the unbalanced schedule puts an emphasis on divisional play.

“When the Red Sox won the division in 2018, they went 16-3 against the Orioles,” Singleton said. “When the Yankees won in 2019, they went 17-2 against the Orioles. And this year, the Rays went 18-1 against them. So in a way, the Orioles hold the key to the division. If you play great against them, you’re going to win.”

The Orioles lost 110 games this season, tying with the Arizona Diamondbacks for the most in the majors. And how did the Giants and the Dodgers do against the Diamondbacks in the N.L. West?

The Giants beat them 17 times, and the Dodgers beat them 16 times. That one game was the difference in the division.

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