Commentary

Oh, the perils of being a wild card

Originally Published: September 20, 2013
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It's the most prestigious game in baseball that nobody wants to play in.

And it's coming, in a mere week and a half, to a tightrope near you.

On Bud Selig's favorite drawing board, the wild-card game still looks like a tremendous invention. It makes for awesome October theater, right out of the postseason gate. It creates powerful motivation for any team to win its division, which is always an excellent idea.

And for the teams and players that will find themselves playing in that game, it will definitely beat heading home to clean out the garage or to get that root canal they've been putting off all season.

But …

Take it from those who have been there, done this and felt the agony of having their beautiful season end after one intense day at the old ball yard:

"

It's Game 7, right out of the chute. … There's no, 'Go get 'em tomorrow.' You don't have a chance to bounce back from a bad game.

" --Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez

Playing in the wild-card game and "making the playoffs" are not the same thing. Not if the "reward" for being a wild card is nine innings of win-or-go-home life on the October high wire.

"It didn't feel like the playoffs," said Brian McCann, a still-frustrated member of the Braves team that lost last year's National League wild-card game (aka the Infield Fly Rule Classic) to the Cardinals. "I don't know how to explain it. I just feel like, you play 162 games, you win 90-plus, and all of a sudden, it's one game and you're home?

"I don't know how to explain it, other than: It didn't feel like the playoffs."

And we get that. In "the playoffs," as we've always known them, there's an ebb and a flow. Plot lines develop. Momentum builds. And an ugly couple of hours, in Game 1 of any series, doesn't instantly boot you off the postseason cliff. But in the wild-card game, none of that applies. None of it.

"It's Game 7, right out of the chute," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "That's the way you have to manage that game. It's Game 7. … There's no, 'Go get 'em tomorrow.' You don't have a chance to bounce back from a bad game."

So seven months ago, the Braves arrived at spring training, after a winter of living with the pain of that wild-card loss, knowing what they had to do.

"I think we were all on a mission this year," McCann said, "to win our division, so we don't have to deal with that game."

Well, luckily for them, they're on the verge of accomplishing that mission. But somebody is going to have to play in That Game. And that means that over in the NL Central, we're witnessing a riveting three-team scramble among clubs whose biggest goal in life at the moment is to make sure it isn't them.

[+] EnlargeMatt Holliday and Pete Kozma
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe disputed infield fly rule play marred last year's Cardinals-Braves wild-card game.

"After last year," said Jason Motte, the now-injured closer for a Cardinals team that won That Game last October, "We're all, like: 'Do we want to go play in THAT thing again? That was crazy.'"

Yes, even for the team that won the first NL wild-card game, the memories of That Game get the Cardinals' heartbeats pounding like the percussion section of the Missouri Symphony Orchestra.

They saw the madness that unfolded at Turner Field that day. They saw a really good team in the other dugout have its season unravel in three bizarre hours -- with a series of strange plays, an infield fly rule call people are still debating and a 19-minute, bottle-heaving fan revolt right out of the South American soccer crowd playbook.

So even though they were the team that survived, the Cardinals understand better than anyone (except for maybe the Braves) how vital it is to the well-being of their parade quest to find a way to win the Central.

"If you don't want to play in that wild-card game, you have to win your division," Motte said. "That's just the way it is. You definitely don't want to go out and play in that one game and have something like an infield fly rule be your game-changer."

And that, gang, is the first moral of this story. We know now, better than ever, that it isn't very baseball-like to have one game decide anything -- let alone anything this important. We know because we've seen it in action.

This is, after all, a sport where only one team in the big leagues (the Red Sox) has won 60 percent of its games this season.

And it's a sport where the worst club in baseball -- an Astros team that careened to 50 games under .500 this week -- has won games this year against Yu Darvish, David Price, Bartolo Colon, Max Scherzer and James Shields.

So no wonder Sports Illustrated's Joe Sheehan routinely refers to That Game as "the Coin Flip Game." He's not far off.

Anything can happen in one baseball game. Anything. And there's no assurance it will be logical, fair, just, honorable or conducive to the best team moving on.

But now that we've got all that established, here's the second moral of our story:

Nobody ever promised this would be fair, just, honorable or conducive to the best team moving on. That's not why this game came to exist. You can ask the commissioner of baseball himself.

[+] EnlargeTurner Field
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLast year's NL wild-card game was halted for 19 minutes during the eighth inning as controversy and trash swirled around Turner Field.

"As Joe Torre always says to me," said Bud Selig, "life isn't perfect. We can't devise a perfect system, no matter what we devise. What we did [by adding the second wild card and producing the wild-card game] was, we placed a premium on winning your division. So quite candidly, I think the second wild card has done exactly what it was intended to do."

And guess what? He's absolutely correct.

You know what you haven't seen this September? You haven't seen a single team even contemplate doing what the Yankees did in late September of 2010, when their general manager, Brian Cashman, admitted that they "didn't try to win the division" once it became clear they were safely ahead of the wild-card pack.

So they went 3-8 down the stretch -- and it didn't matter. They rested players, skipped starts -- and it didn't matter. They let the Rays finish first -- and it didn't matter.

But it sure matters now -- because that wild-card survivor game has changed everything.

"This has added value to the 162 [games in the season]," Pirates GM Neal Huntington said. "And I think that's a great thing for baseball. The meaning of 162 has never been bigger. And that's where the pain comes from in a one-game, season-ending loss. … That's the reason to play to win your division, so nothing extreme happens in Game 163 that ends your season."

The Pirates, of course, have a slightly different perspective on all this -- seeing as how they're as grateful for the invention of that second wild card as any team on earth. When you've gone 21 years between Octoberfests, there's no such thing as a bad way to make the playoffs, wouldn't you say?

"I don't think you'll ever hear us complain about being in the postseason," Huntington said with a laugh, "even if it's a one-game playoff."

But they also don't need to ruffle through their infield fly rule files to know the difference between the perils of playing wild-card-game roulette and the perks of finishing first. So if they have to empty the tank and burn one of their best starters in Game 162, that's already the plan.

"If we have an opportunity to [win the division], versus being a wild card, in Game 162, I'm sure you'll see us go all out to try to win the division," Huntington said.

So if that was the intent of this innovation, it's working. There's not much dissent on that. But that doesn't mean this idea is now universally beloved, either. Even people who see the beauty in motivating every team to ride the accelerator all the way to the finish line have reservations about the way this sport has chosen to do that.

Why, they ask, does it have to be a one-and-done wild-card game?

[+] EnlargeAndrew McCutchen, Felix Pie and Josh Harrison
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesHip, hip, hooray! The Pirates, entering play Friday, are a game ahead of the Reds and one behind the Cardinals in the NL Central.

One of these years, you realize, a team that wins 100 games and might just be the second-best team in the whole sport is going to wind up in That Game. And what do you think you'll hear if a 100-win team gets booted some October by a team that just won 87?

You could write that script today. Couldn't you? Why did we just spend six months determining who the best teams were and then send one of them home because of a format that clearly isn't fair?

Good question. And it's not much different from what the Braves are still asking after winning 94 games last year – the same number as that Giants team that won the World Series – and getting bounced by one surreal loss to a team that won only 88.

"I know that's for the fans," Gonzalez said. "And I think the fans got what they wanted -- a lot of buzz for that one game, a football, sudden-death type playoff game. But I think there's no reason you couldn't make that two out of three."

Ah, but there is a reason. And before players and owners agreed to this system, they weighed it heavily.

When players kicked this around at a players association's executive board meeting before negotiations began, "there was a lot of sentiment for two out of three," said the union's general counsel, David Prouty, "until we told them what the cost would be of two out of three.

"And the cost was that teams that win their division would have to sit for a week, or up to a week [waiting for the wild-card round to finish]. And once we spelled that out, all of a sudden the players were saying, 'One game sounds a lot better.'"

Not everyone agrees that it needs to take a week, though. We've heard all sorts of proposals. Start the series the day after the season. Play a doubleheader. Play all three games at the park of the first wild card, etc. But there's no indication any of that is under serious consideration -- or ever was.

"You've got to allow at least a day after the season for tiebreakers -- and probably two days," Prouty said. "And then you probably have to put a travel day in there. And you've got to set the TV times. So you're really talking a week -- and that's barring any rain problems."

"Look, we have time constraints," Selig said. "I worry already that [if the World Series goes seven games next month] we're going to end on Oct. 31. So we can't keep adding games. … I understand the criticism. I really do. The winner of that game is going to be thrilled. And the loser is not. I understand that. But frankly, this is better for a myriad of reasons."

So get the picture? This is the deal. And the deal isn't going to change. Not between now and next weekend. Maybe not ever. Which means it's time to stop complaining about the most prestigious game nobody wants to play in -- and just deal with it.

"You know what? It's crazy that we can play 162 games, and then it comes down to one game, win or go home," Motte said. "But the way I look at it, I think that's part of the fun. Bring your A-game and play a game where every strike, every ball, everything that happens is that much more magnified. Yeah, there's pressure. But from a player's standpoint, I love it. And you should love it.

"I mean, when you get right down to it," said a guy who played in That Game just one year ago and lived to tell about it, "that's what we play for."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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