Wild card proving a plus for fans of major league baseball

Posted: Tuesday, October 21, 2003

For a century or so, baseball thrived on consistency, embracing change grudgingly. The designated hitter and interleague play still annoy purists, who prefer the game the way it once was.

The latest frontal attack on tradition was adding wild-card teams to the playoffs but the surprise is even traditionalists are beginning to believe that change was a pretty good idea.

Florida is back in the World Series as a wild-card team. The Marlins used that route to win the world championship in 1997. The Boston Red Sox came within five outs of creating baseball's second straight all-wild card World Series.

A year ago, Anaheim and San Francisco produced a pulsating seven-game World Series. Without the wild card, neither team would have made it.

It was an eloquent endorsement for the rule that was adopted in 1993 and put in place for the first time in 1995.

Dave Dombrowski was general manager of the Marlins in their championship season. Now GM of the Detroit Tigers, Dombrowski says the wild card has added zest to baseball's season.

''I like it and not just because we won the world championship after getting in that way,'' Dombrowski said.

''It was a good move. It created additional attention and a little more excitement for the game.

''I'm a purist and a traditionalist but you have to be open-minded to change that can help the game. With 30 clubs, it really made a lot of sense to create the wild card.''

In the National League, the wild card created a heated race this season even though two of the three divisions were runaways for Atlanta and San Francisco. Philadelphia battled Florida through the final month and Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston were in the thick of the wild card chase.

''Six or seven clubs were knee-deep in the process, all against a backdrop of runaways in the NL East and West,'' Phillies GM Ed Wade said. ''We created a real race, not an artificial one.

''We want to finish first. We don't disguise that. The Braves were way ahead, but the reality in Philadelphia is that we were in our own pennant race with the Marlins. We drew 2 1/4 million people to see a good club in the framework of a race. The fans have embraced interleague play and the wild card.''

Gene Orza, the No. 2 official in the players' union, likes what the wild card has added to baseball.

''I think it has characteristics that other races don't with people in different divisions competing with each other,'' he said. ''It has a league-wide stroke.''

Orza said the size of the two leagues virtually requires wild cards.

''With thirty teams, three divisions make more sense than two and then you need the wild card,'' he said.

''The wild-card races have been good for the sport. Last year, you had two wild-card teams and no one suggested it was an illegitimate World Series. It was a great World Series that people thought was exciting.''

There have been internal discussions over the possibility of expanding the wild card. The NFL playoffs include four wild-card teams. The NHL has 10 non-division winners in its postseason and the NBA has 12.

When baseball created the wild card in 1993, the vote was 27-1 supporting the new rule. The only negative vote came from Texas, where the owners were traditionalists.

''They were purists. They wanted real grass for the ballpark and no roof,'' Rangers spokesman John Blake said. ''And they didn't want the wild card.''

The Rangers lost that battle and the rule was adopted without their endorsement. The managing partner got over the disappointment. George W. Bush sold the club and moved on to more crucial matters in Washington.

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