The second wild card is a godsend/disgrace, and we come to praise/bury it.
I'm not a traditionalist. I'm all for instant replay and protecting catchers, and interleague play secretly delights me. The second wild card disgusted me until we found out that it was going to devalue the other wild card. It was something of a compromise. It's OK for Baseball to give another participatory ribbon out if they're also going to hamper the Marlins Loophole — the old system that can make a two-time champion out of a team that's never won a division.
But there were arguments for and against the second wild card. We can collect those arguments into a simple omnibus now and call it "2014." This season is everything right/wrong with the wild card, and the differences are conveniently split evenly across both leagues. The two sides:
The fair, the just, the life-giving
I don't know how it happened, but I'm pretty sure I follow a disproportionate amount of Royals fans and Mariners fans on Twitter. There's no way I could do my job well without following fans of all 30 teams, gauging fan optimism, fear and loathing, but somewhere along the way, the Royals and Mariners fans got over-represented. Which means I'm qualified to detail how most of those fans are feeling about baseball right now. Here goes:
They're interested in baseball, and it's an interest they haven't felt in a while. At Royals Review, they're asking where fans were the last time the Royals were contending. The answers range from "theoretical and technically split between two sets of reproductive organs" to "traveling from town to town with my brother, selling patent medicine for two bits a vial." They're all nervous about this sudden rush of relevancy, but giddy that the chance exists.
It wouldn't have existed three years ago. There would have been a dull "well maybe" that came with a 5½-game deficit for the One True Wild Card, but there wouldn't have been excitement. Now, though, everyone's jazzed and eager for the next game, making secret plans for October that they haven't had to do for years. And these are good, mostly well-built teams, too. These are teams that deserve to be excited in August, just as they're flawed teams that don't deserve an automatic pass into the playoffs. They're teams that took risks to get here — the kinds of risks that historically irrelevant teams don't like to take — and for this season, at least, they're working out.
Okay. Photo - Ed Zurga
(Note: I know the Royals are in first place right now, but I'm mostly remembering the last two weeks, when the wild card was the more realistic hope, and people were still excited about it.)
(Also: Jeez, Tigers.)
The main benefit of the second wild card was to keep interest alive in more markets, to get more fans interested in August and September baseball. Look at the American League. It's working. It's helping long-suffering franchises (don't forget the two decades of mediocrity from the Blue Jays) stay excited about baseball longer. That's just delightful.
Victory by subpoena
In the National League, there are a bunch of lousy teams all fighting to be worse than the other ones. Picture the wild card race in the NL as one of those mid-inning stunts at a minor league ballpark, where fans come down from the stands, put their foreheads on the knob of a bat, and spin, spin, spin before racing to a point in the distance. They clang into each other. They fall down. If we're lucky, maybe one of them throws up. It's a mess, and there's no reason for it.
I can't imagine how a team that would make the playoffs if the season ended right now could be more of a mess than the Pirates are.— Pat Lackey (@whygavs) August 11, 2014
The Pirates are a mess? The ... wait, the Pirates? Listen, pal, I follow the San Francisco Giants, and let me tell you ...
[screaming effigy of the Atlanta Braves plummets past third-story window]
... there is no way that a team can play worse than the Giants.
So it goes in the NL, where teams that should be long gone — teams whose hopes should already have been damaged irrevocably — are hanging around, fighting for one of two potential rewards. It's unseemly, at best. All of the teams are a mess:
- The Pirates are without their best player, and not one of their regular starting pitchers has an adjusted ERA better than the league average
- The Cardinals have been outscored on the season, and their two big rotation additions have given up a combined 21 runs in 20 innings
- The Giants are 20-35 in their last 55 games, which includes an active stretch of 22 losses in their last 29 home games
- The Braves are just a game over .500, where they haven't been since the seventh game of the season
Yet all of the them are contending. Two of them might make the playoffs. There isn't the mirth and merriment of the teams in the first section. There's just disbelief. How is this annoying team still in it? There's more than those teams, too. The Reds are just 2½ games back; the Marlins are just a game behind them, despite being under .500. The Mets and Padres are as close to the playoffs as the Giants are to the top of the NL West.
Repeat: The Mets and Padres have an unrealistic, but not impossible, shot at the 2014 Major League Baseball Playoffs.
The second wild card is an abomination. It's a breath of fresh air. It devalues the idea of the best teams making the playoffs. It increases the value of a long, long regular season for teams that would have already checked out. It's the best. It's the worst. It's giving rightful hope to interesting teams. It's giving ill-gotten hope to irreparably damaged teams.
Also, please remember that it's keeping our collective dream of a Yankees/Cardinals World Series alive.
Long live the second wild card. Pray for the sudden demise of the second wild card. It's everything that's right and wrong with the 2014 playoff race. I hate it so, the beautiful thing.