A pennant race like it oughta be
Posted by keithosaunders on September 24, 2010
This year baseball fans are being treated to a good old-fashioned pennant race. With a week and a half remaining in the season the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants have been flip-flopping daily for the division lead, with the Colorado Rockies not far behind. At the moment the Giants are in front of the Padres by a half a game with the Rockies trailing by 3 and a half. In addition, the Padres also trail the wildcard leading Atlanta Braves by a half game.
Over in the A.L. East the Yankees and Rays have been involved in a close race which has been rendered moot by the absence of an American League wildcard race. Barring a miracle finish by the Redsox, who are 7 games out of the wildcard lead, both the Yankees and Rays will be in the playoffs. What should be a riveting race between two great teams is instead meaningless.
In 1993 there was an incredible pennant race between the Atlanta Braves, then in the western division, and the San Francisco Giants. On July 20th of that year the Giants were a comfortable 9 games ahead of the Braves. Around that time the Braves acquired Fred McGriff from the Bluejays, and inserted rookie Greg McMichael into the closer role. They reeled off 27 wins in 35 games before facing the Giants with their new lineup. They then swept a 3 game series at Candlestick to move to within 1 and a half games of the Giants. The teams met for their final series on the last week of August, a series in which Atlanta won 2 of 3.
In September, thanks to an injury-depleted pitching staff, the Giants fell 4 games behind Atlanta. Improbably, that managed to turn it around by going on a 13-1 tear setting up a final weekend of the season which found the two teams deadlocked in the standings. The Giants played in Los Angeles against their arch-rival, Dodgers, while the Braves played the expansion Colorado Rockies, whom they had owned throughout the season. It all came down to the last day of the season, both teams owning identical records. The Braves won their game against the Rockies 4-3 and retired to their clubhouse to watch the Giants lose a laugher to the Dodgers, 12-1. (This was a modicum of revenge for L.A. The Giants, behind a home run from an aging Joe Morgan, had ended their 1982 season in similar fashion) The 1993 Giants finished with a record of 103-59.
Because a 100 win team missed the playoffs, baseball felt that they had to do something to rectify the situation. This factor, along with the enticement of additional TV money, prompted the creation of the wildcard team.
In 1995, when the wildcard system was adopted, baseball sacrificed drama for the inclusion of two additional playoff teams. While there still are compelling races such as the one this year, having a wildcard team precludes the possibility of two 100 + win teams doing battle. One or the other will almost certainly claim the wildcard spot since the chance of having a third dominant team is practically impossible.
In the two division format there had been riveting tension that lasted all throughout September. Compare that with the ennui that has settled into the AL East most of this, and every season. The divional format existed in major league baseball for 24 years. In this span 100 win teams missed the playoffs twice. The only other time it occurred was in 1980 when Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Oriole’s won 100 games yet finished behind the division-winning Yankees. Imagine how crabby Weaver must have been after having squandering a 3-1 lead in games to Pittsburgh in the 1979 World Series only to follow it up in with a 100 year non-playoff season!