Monday, August 14, 2006

American League To Claim Both Wild Card Spots This October

Instituted after the 1993 season, the wild card represents one of numerous recent departures from tradition for Major League Baseball. It has allowed the Florida Marlins to capture two World Series despite never winning a division championship. This fall, the concept will bring an even greater change. Commissioner Bud Selig has announced that both wild card spots will be claimed by American League clubs.

The decision was made based on a glance at the wild card races in each league. Under existing rules, the Boston Red Sox would not make the playoffs at 68-48 if the season ended today. However, the 61-57 Cincinnati Reds would. To address the situation, the commissioner has decided to award the National League’s wild card spot to the club that finishes second in the AL wild card race. Reportedly, Selig had also considered giving the NL wild card berth to the winner of the Little League World Series. However, late starts for night games would have kept several players up past their bedtimes.

The cross-over team will receive the #2 seed in the NL playoffs. This seeding reflects the fact that only the New York Mets have been truly playoff-worthy in the senior circuit this season. The St. Louis Cardinals have the NL’s second-best record at 62-55, bettered by seven AL clubs. The Cards have suffered two eight-game losing streaks this season and are coming off a three-game sweep by the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates in which they were outscored 17-3. The weekend in Pittsburgh could have gone even worse, but Albert Pujols declined an invitation to go riding with Ben Roethlisberger.

The AL club that participates in the NL playoffs must abide by NL rules. Therefore, that team will not have the luxury of the designated hitter. Fortunately, the pitchers will be batting against National League staffs. Also, at Selig’s request, the AL team must pay tribute to his old Milwaukee Brewers, who shifted from the AL to NL in 1998. Therefore, the AL club will hold sausage races during each home game. As a consolation prize, the top non-division winner in the NL (normally the wild card team) will have an entrant in each sausage race.

Such concessions would be fine with the Red Sox or Minnesota Twins. They are currently second and third in the AL wild card standings, so both are prime candidates to benefit from the commissioner’s decision. Boston and Minnesota each went 16-2 in inter-league play this season. The opportunity to take on more NL opponents would almost be like Christmas in October for those clubs, even though the Red Sox no longer have Jesus in center field. Neither team has a St. Nick, but Twins infielder Nick Punto is batting .312.

Shifting an AL club to the NL playoffs could provide some compelling storylines. If the Chicago White Sox are that team, they could win the AL and NL pennants in consecutive seasons. The media would have a real field day if either the New York Yankees or the Red Sox are part of the NL playoffs. With the Mets otherwise favored in the NL, a Subway Series could take place in the NLCS. Alternatively, the NL pennant could be decided in a rematch of the 1986 World Series. Start times would have to be delayed, so Fox could devote the first hour of coverage entirely to replays of Bill Buckner’s error.

As previous years have shown, records do not necessarily mean anything in the postseason. Playoff series are won by the hottest team at the time. Fortunately for the extra club from the AL, the hottest team is unlikely to be from the National League.