The real winners of baseball's additional wild card spots

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By JON ALBA
College Contributor Network

I can recall the October night in 2009. The nail-biting, pitch-by-pitch sequences that could have brought the commencement of one team's dream and the devastating end to another's. The heckling and cheering of more than 54,000 fans echoed throughout the cavernous Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, as the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins fought to see another day.

But this wasn't Game 7 of the ALCS. It was Game 163.

Sports are built on the precipice of the dramatics. And as the two teams played the extra game to decide the winner of the American League Central, Major League Baseball took notice.

Just three years later, a new system mandating a single-game playoff was established throughout the sport. The promise of the aforementioned dramatics is something at which a league with meaningful television contracts could only salivate, a concept that goes hand-in-hand with building excitement for the sport itself.

The prime example? Last year's one-game playoff between the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates which saw a 33.1 domestic television rating in Pittsburgh -- the highest ever for baseball in the city. In essence, it was a game that can be filed under the "Everyone and their mother watched this" category.

The inclusion of the two additional wild card teams has seen backlash from the baseball traditionalists still fixated on trying to find reasons to argue that WAR is a useless statistic. Yet the reality stands: Major League Baseball, in an era dominated by other "street" sports, has created an emphasis on competition not found in any other major sport.

When baseball expanded in 1995 to include the first wild card per each league -- a product of realignment -- many worried about the legitimacy of the teams making the playoffs. The wild card was seen as virtually being no different than winning a division; a free pass into the playoffs that gave said team virtually the same competitive advantage as its divisional counterpart.

Since its introduction, 10 wild-card winners have made the World Series, with six of them taking the title. It is hard to suggest they faced an uphill battle.

The primary arguments many will make to support the clear disadvantages of this seeding are the cases of rest and starting pitching.

Take the 2013 Tampa Bay Rays, who squeaked their way into the second AL wild card spot via a single-game playoff with the Texas Rangers (Game 163 just to get to Game 164, essentially). Just two days later, the team had to square off against Cleveland, another elimination game it managed to take.

This led way for the ALDS another two days later, where the Red Sox handily defeated them. The six games in nine days stretch caught up to the Rays, who were outscored 26-12 in the series.

In the case of pitching, the division winners will undoubtedly have an advantage over the squad coming off the wild card matchup.

As of Sept. 9, the Seattle Mariners found themselves in position for a spot in the single-game playoff, its first playoff game in the last decade, and it would be one in which ace Felix Hernandez would need to take the mound. Should Seattle win, when is he next available? For a one-off appearance in the ALDS?

The division winner has the clear advantage on the pitching front, with its ace available for multiple contests in the series. And perhaps this is the most significant part of the expanded playoffs. Maybe the principle motivation of the additional wild card spot doesn't even involve the wild card winner itself.

With the one-game playoff, winning the division is now the foremost important objective a team should tackle as it embarks upon its season. This should, at the bare minimum, quench the thirst of the "traditionalists" longing for the days of the East and the West battles.

While many teams will now blow up its roster in mid-season moves -- attempting to scratch a small taste of October through reaching the second wild card spot -- the division winner need not worry.

Two years after the inception of the expanded playoffs, it's fascinating some still struggle to come to terms with the new layout. It is a piece of the ongoing evolution of the sport, one that is necessary in order for it to be able to compete on the larger scale going forward.

Much like instant replay, it targets a new generation of fans and demands more out of the game.

Yet ultimately, amidst the misjudgment, the added pressure on the wild cards stands as a reminder: Reach for the Promised Land. Not for mediocrity.


Jon Alba is a senior at Quinnipiac University. There he serves as general manager of the school's television station, Q30 Television. Follow him on Twitter: @JonAlbaSFC
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