One-and-done format has fans, detractors
Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig described the scene at last season's National League wild-card game in Atlanta as “pretty cool” and “a pretty crazy environment.” It also helped that his team won.
In the first year of the new playoff format, St. Louis, which would not have made the playoffs under the old format, advanced to the division series. The Cardinals benefited from three errors and a hotly-disputed umpire's call that prompted some Braves fans to litter the field with debris.
But controversy was brewing before that, ever since Commissioner Bud Selig in November 2011 said he favored adding a second wild-card team and a single-elimination wild-card play-in game. The plan became official the following March. Some liked it, others did not.
“For a team to play 162 games and everything you go through during the season, to play one game to decide if you're going to the playoffs – that would be a tough pill to swallow,” Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay told a reporter.
Many still share Halladay's viewpoint. A few weeks ago in the visitors' clubhouse at PNC Park, Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips said the format is “good for the fans” and “good for baseball.”
But even if the Reds benefited by getting in as the second wild card, which is what happened, Phillips insisted “I'm not really a fan of it.”
The Reds will face the Pirates again Tuesday at PNC Park in a one-and-done playoff. The Pirates claimed home-field advantage by winning their weekend series in Cincinnati.
They also brought to light the fact that until last season, this game would not have been played, their ticket to the division series already punched. Then again, after a 20-season playoff absence, there are few grounds for complaint.
“I won't say whether I like it or dislike it, but it makes things very interesting,” second baseman Neil Walker said before the Pirates' postseason status crystallized. “I would want to win the division, obviously. If you have to play the wild-card game, you hope to play it at home. Certainly the fans are gonna be excited. It's gonna be a football atmosphere, that one game, winner take all. That's very rare in a baseball format.”
As Selig and fans of the format have emphasized, adding a wild-card team keeps more teams and their fans involved in the postseason race. Solid TV ratings last season reflected the appeal of what Craig called a “do-or-die game.”
Noting the jockeying for postseason position, especially in the American League, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said recently, “Look at the cities that are still in play. Look at the fan bases that are still in play. ... It turned out, from my perspective, to be a stroke of genius.”
Many scorned the original wild-card concept, which was approved before the 1994 season. Broadcaster Bob Costas said then that he viewed the wild card “with contempt.” So what about having two wild cards now?
“My feeling is, if we have one wild card, two wild cards are probably better,” said Costas, who will call a league division series game on MLB Network. “It involves more teams and fan bases. It will somewhat disadvantage the wild-card teams but advantage the teams with the best records. Maybe not enough, but it's a step in the right direction. Once you get away from first-place teams only, no system is gonna be perfect.”
Costas said he prefers a best-of-three wild-card format, with all three games on the home field of the team with the better record.
“That has to mean something,” he said. “But it's not an impossible hill to climb. ... You would have a tremendous advantage but not an insurmountable advantage.”
After playing 162 games, “there should be a clear and meaningful distinction between winning the division and making the playoffs,” he said. “Adding that second wild card, they made that distinction more meaningful.”