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Wild Cards a staple of Fall Classic
10/22/2004 8:33 PM ET
BOSTON -- The 100th World Series is still basically the same game as it was when the Boston Red Sox won the first one in 1903. But they are here for Saturday night's opener as Wild Cards, and that is one of the big trends in the modern Fall Classic.

This will be the fifth World Series of this millennium, and Boston's participation means that exactly half of the 10 teams involved have been Wild Cards. Even more notably, Boston could be the third Wild Card team in a row to win it all.

The Florida Marlins won as the National League Wild Card last year over the New York Yankees, and the Anaheim Angels won as the American League Wild Card the previous October against San Francisco.

That 2002 World Series also marked the first time that two Wild Card teams met, and only a few innings prevented that scenario from turning into an even more profound modern three-year streak in the granddaddy of championship events. The Red Sox would have made it two double-Wild Card Fall Classics in a row had it not been for Aaron Boone's homer to win the 2003 AL Championship Series. The Houston Astros were a few innings away from meeting the Red Sox in a potential third consecutive double-Wild series until Scott Rolen's homer for St. Louis sent them home.

Astros manager Phil Garner had been hoping to see two Wild Cards meet in this World Series. It will be left up to Boston alone in this series, and he said the Red Sox are the latest ultimate beneficiary of a great thing for the game.

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"I think all this brings to bear the importance of having this present-day format," Garner said. "There's so many teams that were in this race that would not have been in this race coming down the stretch in the National League. And I think it served to keep the interest in baseball in those cities, whether it's Chicago, Florida, or even Philadelphia, down to the last couple of weeks of the season.

"It kept the interest alive in those cities. I think it really does help the play of baseball in the long run because players are involved, too. Quite frankly, if you still had divisional races only and the Cardinals are 19 games up, what are you playing for the last month, really? It's unrealistic that you can think that you can catch them, even though you don't give up. But I think it's so much better for baseball to have the Wild Card format. I think it keeps a lot of scenarios open, and I think the fans enjoy it as much as the players are enjoying it."

Wild Card teams first appeared in the postseason in 1995. Florida was the first team to reach the World Series -- beating Cleveland in 1997 to celebrate its first of two World Series championships, both as Wild Cards. The New York Mets won the 2000 NL Wild Card and lost to the Yankees in the Subway Series. The 2001 World Series featured division winners Arizona and the New York Yankees, but there has been a common thread in each Fall Classic since then involving the Wild Card.

It was a rule change that has led to incredible competition in the stretch drive of the regular season -- so intensely that no one even knew a single matchup until the final Sunday of this past regular season. But the Wild Card has become much more than an alternative avenue into the postseason. It has become a team to fear in the Fall Classic. The Marlins didn't even need the home-field advantage last October against the Yanks.

Now it's Boston's turn -- the first Wild Card appearance in a World Series by a Red Sox team trying to win it all for the first time since 1918.

"When the Wild Card system came into play, there was some concern that an average team would make it to the World Series," Astros broadcaster and former pitcher and manager Larry Dierker wrote recently in an column. "Now that a few Wild Card teams have become World Series champions, it is clear that they have been worthy. Only once, in the strike-shortened 1995 season, has a team in either league won the Wild Card with less than 90 wins."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.