Bud Selig's legacy will be debated for decades, but there's no denying that he made substantial changes to Major League Baseball. The wild card. The second wild card. The wild card challenge. The lightning round. The golden key. Baseball is much, much different than it used to be.
But focus today on the second wild card. It's why the Rangers, Angels, Orioles and Twins are all fighting for a postseason spot. It's why the Pirates and the Cubs have to worry only about a game against each other in October instead of missing the postseason entirely. There are a half-dozen teams with hope that wouldn't have had it just a few years ago. This hope, it's argued, is the best reason for the second wild card to exist.
If you like the second wild card, it's because of this extra hope.
This extra hope is a lie. The second wild card will crush your spirits and suck the dreams out of you. Do not fall for its tricks.
Take the National League this year. The Pirates and Cubs are excellent, fantastically built teams. They have youth and star power, aces and All-Stars. They're both on their way to one of the best seasons in franchise history. They'll fight and claw for every win for the rest of the year, and after three hours in October, one of them is going to look around and wonder what in the hell happened. The punch to the face might come after a bad first inning, even. The losing team might play 162 games just to get effectively eliminated in the first 15 minutes of a game.
The conventional thinking is that this is an improvement over the old system, in which the wild card winner would have free reign to torment the teams who won their respective divisions. And that's absolutely correct. In theory. But in practice, the new format has preyed on the teams that have recently suffered through decades of sadness. The Wild Card Game is either evil and remorseless, or it's unfeeling and uncaring.
The first thing to do is define what a decades-of-sadness team is. You can compare the Pirates to the Cubs over the last couple decades, but their histories are quite different. A 21-year-old Pirates fan can complain that 21-year-old Cubs fans have seen their team win a division, whereas the 50-year-old Cubs fan can complain that a 50-year-old Pirates fan has seen their team win a World Series.
There's no sense in tallying up sadness points for this exercise, so the definition will be simple: We're looking for teams that haven't won the World Series in at least 20 years, if they've won a championship at all.
Now let's look at the history of the Wild Card Game. The teams who haven't won a championship in 20 years will be italics.
AL: Baltimore Orioles vs Texas Rangers
NL: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Atlanta Braves
At the time, the Rangers were the super-team, the bullies, and the Orioles were fluky underdog darlings who weren't supposed to have a chance in the the Wild Card. Then baseball happened, and wouldn't you know it? The Orioles moved on.
Except that sells the Rangers' legacy of sadness far short. The 2011 World Series was one of the cruelest in baseball history, and the easiest way for Rangers fans to get over was to mumble "Wait 'till next year," when they still had a super-team. They blew the doors off the league all year ... until the end, when they fell just short.
It's hard to think of the Braves as having a legacy of sadness if you're my age, but they haven't won the World Series since Freddie Freeman was six. The drought was 19 years old at the time of the Wild Card Game, so it shouldn't really qualify, but I'm trying to make a point on the Internet, which means I'm allowed to obscure facts.
Outcome for DOS teams: 1-2
Outcome for other teams: 1-0
AL: Tampa Rays vs. Cleveland Indians
NL: Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds
All sadness teams, with the Indians standing out for their historically relevant drought. The Rays are the only team here that hasn't won a World Series at all, though, so don't dismiss them because of their relative newness. It's possible to be a Rays-loving adult and remember decades of pain.
On the other hand, the Rays have won as many postseason series in the last 20 years as the Pirates and Reds combined.
We're doing it again! Tallying up sadness points. But the point is that all four of these teams had a feeling of finally when they got to the postseason. Three hours later, two of them were looking around, wondering what happened to the very, very long baseball season.
Outcome for DOS teams: 2-2
Outcome for other teams: N/A
AL: Oakland Athletics vs. Kansas City Royals
NL: San Francisco Giants vs. Pittsburgh Pirates
This is the perfect summation of what the second wild card does to hope. Here you have two franchises without a championship since the '80s, a franchise without a championship since the '70s, and a spoiled franchise that just won two championships against DOS teams. Guess who came out on top.
The AL matchup was cruel from the start. Either the home crowd was going to be devastated that the Royals' miracle run was over, or the A's were going to be devastated that the miracle collapse arrived at its logical destination. Not only did the A's lose, but they lost in the most soul-spindling fashion in the game designed to spindle souls.
In the NL, the spoiled jerks won, even though no one was rooting for them outside of a 100-mile radius. Because they tied with the Pirates in regular-season record, this was akin to a 163rd play-in game that would have existed in the past, but that doesn't mean it wasn't cruel and unusual.
And the first team to win the World Series using the hope of the second wild card was a team that had won two championships in the previous 1,000 days. They didn't deserve the hope, but they took it because this is America.
Outcome for DOS teams: 1-2
Outcome for other teams: 1-0
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So what have we learned? Two simple truths:
- Greedy teams are undefeated in the Wild Card Game
- If a team has gone decades without a championship, the only way they can advance is if they beat another team that has gone decades without a championship
Which brings us to this year. Which teams have a chance to play in the Wild Card Games of their respective leagues? We'll put the decades-of-sadness teams in italics again.
- Blue Jays
Seven teams without a championship in decades, if ever, and two with at least one in the last 15 years. The only reason I'm not guaranteeing a Yankees victory in the Wild Card Game is because there's still a chance for the Angels to beat the Blue Jays. I'm not going to antagonize Cubs fans by suggesting they're at a disadvantage, but the Indians' loss to the Rays proves that the Wild Card Game is a monster, so draw your own conclusions.
The Wild Card Game allows fans to have more hope. Unless you're following one of the spoiled teams, though, the hope is a lie more often than not. In the past, there was no hope. Teams would just slowly wither away in August and September as the division leader ran away with the division. Then there was just one wild card winner for a while, and there was a nice balance of in-season and postseason hope.
Now, though? There will be three hours of baseball, and the odds are great that one of the historically screwed teams is going to be sad at the end of it.
Enjoy the rest of the season.
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