Column: Wild card adds some intrigue to baseball

Associated Press + More

By TIM DAHLBERG, Associated Press

For baseball purists, there's not a whole lot to like about what Bud Selig has done to the national pastime.

More proof of that came Wednesday when Selig said he wasn't likely to do anything about Melky Cabrera winning the NL batting title while serving a 50-game suspension for a positive drug test. He also said he has no plans to do some things he should have done a long time ago — like take Barry Bonds' name off the top of the career home run list and restore Roger Maris as the legitimate single-season home run record holder.

"You can't change records because once you get into that it would never stop," Selig said in an interview for the YES Network. "It would create more problems than it would solve."

It wouldn't, but that's not the real reason baseball won't wipe the steroid slate clean. Times are good, teams are flush, and there's no real incentive for Selig to reopen the drug scandal that once threatened the game's very integrity. While stripping Cabrera of the title would be easy enough, it would spark yet another debate over whether baseball has really conquered its drug-related demons.

Purists may object, but they should understand that Selig's main job is not to uphold decades of baseball tradition, but to make baseball owners money. That's why Seattle and Oakland met in the not-so-traditional season opener in Japan, and it's why the World Series might not end this year until November.

It's also why the Dodgers are playing in Yankee Stadium next year in June instead of October, and why the lines between the National League and American League are so blurred by interleague play that they mean nothing anymore.

Give Selig credit for doing his job well. There are new stadiums in almost every city, teams are being sold for astonishing sums, and Major League Baseball is so attractive that ESPN doubled down on it last month with a new contract that pays some $700 million a year.

And even the purists have to be rethinking the one money-making idea that really works — the addition of two new wild-card slots to the playoffs.

Without it, the New York Yankees might be a short losing streak away from not making the postseason at all. With it, the Baltimore Orioles have a good shot at the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.

Without it, the St. Louis Cardinals would have no chance of repeating their improbable run to a World Series title. With it, the Oakland A's are suddenly a threat to the usual big spenders.

We may never have a day in baseball again like the final day of last year's regular season, when after three blown saves and two walk-off wins, the Cardinals and Tampa Bay made the playoffs. But the first day of this postseason could come close, with two teams moving on and two others eliminated in the space of a few hours.

It's a tantalizing prospect, even for baseball fans who remember the days when finishing on top of the regular season standings was a guaranteed ticket into the World Series.

Imagine the Yankees having to jet across the country to play one game in Oakland, with the loser done for the season. Could easily happen. Something Yankee fans couldn't have imagined when their team held a 10-game lead in the AL East in mid-July.

How about the Cardinals against the Atlanta Braves — one game, winner take all. Is there any better way for the Braves to avenge an extra-inning loss on last season's final day that put the Cards in the playoffs?

The fear was that the expansion of the playoffs to 10 teams would take away from the division races, but the prospect of not having to play one game with the season on the line now makes winning the division even more important. It may not seem fair to players who have just battled through a 162-game regular season to have to win one game to advance, but it gives a jolt to the first day of the postseason. And until now, that buzz has been missing.

It may have also encouraged the Dodgers to break the bank for Adrian Gonzalez and others in a desperate move by new owners to deliver a playoff team — a move that hasn't quite worked out.

That's baseball, though, a game that can't always be neatly figured out. At the same time the Dodgers were spending millions, their rivals in the Bay Area were losing their best player in Cabrera. The Giants were a game out of first place then, but now they're running away with the NL West after going 21-9 without the leading hitter in the league.

The Yankees, meanwhile, are in danger of blowing the AL East, while the Boston Red Sox are an odd collection of players who have nothing left to play for this year.

It's all part of the beauty of a game that stretches from the first warm days of spring to the chilly nights of fall.

The addition of two wild-card teams give fans more reasons to hope in September, and more reasons not to change the channel when football is in full swing.

Like almost every idea hatched by Selig, it was designed to make money — and this one actually works.

____

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.