09/02/2003 3:20 PM ET
A Wild idea turns to gold
Take a bow, Mr. Commissioner!
As the pennant races head into the September stretch, I am reminded of the Charley Finley vs. Bowie Kuhn trial of a quarter-century ago. Finley, the late owner of the Oakland A's, sued Kuhn, who had voided the mid-season sale of three of his star players.
Aware he was about to lose them to free agency without compensation, Finley unloaded outfielder Joe Rudi and pitchers Rollie Fingers and Vida Blue. Rudi and Fingers went to the Red Sox for $1 million each and Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million -- a $3.5 million haul, the biggest fire sale in baseball history.
Kuhn cancelled the deals because, he said, they upset competitive balance. If allowed, the Red Sox and Yankees, supposedly, would have a better chance to win the American League pennant. During the trial, it became clear that Kuhn, sitting in his New York office, had assumed the role of the supreme handicapper, and, in effect, was trying to manipulate a dead heat.
It was an action without precedent and similar to what goes on in handicapped horse races in which the horses, according to past performance, are assigned various weights so they might cross the finish line in a tie. It is bizarre to believe the same could be applied to baseball, that the strengths and weaknesses of each club could be judged by an all-knowing czar, a puppeteer behind the curtain, juggling the strings in quest of equality.
To win, Kuhn's lawyers had to dig deep to justify their untenable position. Groping, they insisted Finley's sales were harmful and not in the best interests of baseball because -- and this phrase was invented for the occasion -- it upset "competitive balance."
It sounded good enough but I don't think any of us stopped to think what it meant. One owner, the late and learned Bill DeWitt, a management lifer, didn't fall for the verbal trickery. "I don't know anything about competitive balance," DeWitt testified. "All I know it's dog eat dog."
Today, 27 years later, Commissioner Allan (Bud) Selig has come closest to the dream. And without cancelling or re-arranging a single player transaction in the name of competitive balance or imbalance. The equalizer has been the Wild Card, which is among Selig's many innovations.
Despite a massive media howl about destroying the purity of the game, it went into effect after the last expansion when the National and American leagues grew to a total of 30 teams.
Two divisions, within each league, adopted in 1969, was no longer workable. Selig added a third division in 1995, another of his inventions, and the Wild Card was simultaneously introduced: the second-place teams with the best records were eligible for the playoffs.
Unlike the past, a runaway pennant winner did not kill the gate. There are now two races, one for first place, the other for the Wild Card. On the morning of Aug. 30, in addition to the divisional leaders, seven other National League teams were alive, within 1 1/2 games of the Wild Card lead. It wasn't as close in the AL: two teams a half-game apart, two others 7 1/2 out.
Long ago, before the NL and AL each split into two divisions, East and West, only the first-place teams in each league qualified for the World Series.
Originally, I was among the traditionalists and pointed out that one of the division winners, which would have a lesser won-lost record, could "steal" the Series. Warren Giles, NL president at the time, expressed the same view.
I watched closely. The teams with the best records won the pennant the first three years. In the fourth year the Pirates, who had a record six games worse than the Reds, won the NL Championship Series and went to the World Series. And do you know what happened? Nothing! Mr. Giles and I may have been the only ones who noticed.
Last season was the ultimate, a matchup of two Wild Card clubs, the Anaheim Angels and the San Francisco Giants. It was an exciting Series. The Angels won in seven games. I don't recall any complaints. Fact is, there was hardly a stir that the long season had been compromised.
And, best of all, the Wild Card has stimulated attendance. Suddenly, the fans, realizing their teams were still in the chase, did not abandon them. Face it: baseball is in the entertainment business. Drawing the largest crowds possible is the goal. Empty September stadiums, which were deadening, are no longer common.
Jerome Holtzman is the official historian for Major League Baseball. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.