10/26/2003 1:31 AM ET
Marlins put 'wild' in Wild Card
Florida proves (again) that Selig's tinkering works
Last spring, Commissioner Bud Selig called baseball "the greatest game ever invented" -- and one that has been even better with some tinkering. It was in 1995 that Major League Baseball added the Wild Card to its postseason.
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
"When we implemented the Wild Card and three-division play, we were a target for some national criticism," Selig said in that address to the World Congress of Sports. "Critics accused us of cheapening the pennant races and the World Series. Now, nearly a decade later, it has worked out brilliantly, as we thought it would."
The Florida Marlins have just made the case for Wild Card teams even stronger. Their Game 6 victory Saturday over the Yankees gave the Marlins their second World Series championship in two Wild Card appearances, and it marked the first time that Wild Cards have won back to back, following Anaheim in 2002.
Four of the last eight World Series participants were Wild Cards, including the Giants last year and the Mets in 2000. In addition, this year's Red Sox were within five outs of making it four Wild Cards in the last two Fall Classics. After watching what the Wild Card races meant to baseball fans in September, drawing an average of 30,000-plus to ballparks that month and necessitating compelling trading-deadline moves all around the Majors, it seems clear that the experiment has worked.
Jeff Conine may be one of the biggest fans of the 1995 implementation, and for obvious reasons. He was an original Marlin who played on the 1997 world champions, and he was an important cog in Florida's latest championship. Conine was acquired from Baltimore to add offense when Mike Lowell's hand was broken on Aug. 30.
"It's a wonderful thing," Conine said of the Wild Card. "It makes so many teams competitive to the very end. It shows you that even if you don't win the division, you can still come in, play well and win the postseason."
Asked to compare the two Wild Card conquests, Conine said, "They're both so sweet, but I think this one might be a little sweeter simply because nobody expected us to do this," he said. "Nobody thought we could do this. We shocked the world. We came in and beat the greatest team in sports history in their building. Even going up 3-2, nobody expected us to do that."
"Nobody thought we could do this. We shocked the world. We came in and beat the greatest team in sports history in their building."
-- Jeff Conine
Since 1995, only one team has won the World Series after finishing the season with baseball's best record. The Yankees did that in 1998, when they swept the San Diego Padres for the first of three consecutive titles. During that three-year title run, the Yankees went 12-1 in the World Series, losing only one game to the Mets in 2000, and there was less emphasis on the significance of Wild Cards in the playoffs. But now that the Marlins have vanquished the Yankees, who matched Atlanta with 101 victories to lead the Majors this season, it is clear that Wild Cards are far more than a postseason novelty.
Derrek Lee said after the Marlins' National League Championship Series victory over the Cubs that he believes winning a Wild Card is advantageous "because it makes you big-game ready." The Marlins got here by surviving probably the most intense Wild Card race yet, going on to eliminate the defending National League champion Giants and then the Cubs. They were significant underdogs in all three rounds, especially in the World Series against a Yankee team that had won the American League East.
The first two Wild Cards in 1995 were Colorado in the NL and the Yankees in the AL. For the Rockies, who joined the Majors just two years earlier, it was their only postseason appearance to date. That Yankee club was managed by Buck Showalter, and lost a thrilling five-game Division Series to Seattle -- a club that was able to move out of the old Kingdome thanks to that classic Division Series.
Joe Torre took the Yankees' reins in 1996, and after winning the AL East along the way to a world championship in his first season on the job, Torre's Yankees won the AL Wild Card in 1997. Ironically, that was the same season that the Marlins won it all with the other Wild Card. He understands the value of a Wild Card in baseball very well, and he saw the Yankees' 2003 World Series opponent not as a Wild Card team, but rather, as a World Series team. Once you are on this stage, it really does not matter how you got there -- even if it is hard to ignore how many teams are getting there as Wild Cards in this particular era.
"They do the little things very well," Torre said. "They don't know what intimidation is, not that anyone was trying to intimidate them. You just go out there and play as hard as you can and hope when you look up, you have more runs than the other team. You saw what they did with San Fran, a club that was in the World Series last year. And the Cubs, who, you know, had everything going their way with a 3-1 advantage, going home with a 3-2 advantage with their two best pitchers. They certainly have been tested all the way to the World Series and they didn't flinch."
Relatively little notice has been paid to the fact that the Marlins just overcame the first-ever World Series home-field advantage caused by an All-Star Game. Hank Blalock's game-winning homer meant that the AL had the World Series home-field edge, something that has meant a great deal in recent years.
A Wild Card never can have a home-field advantage in the first two rounds, but it can have it in the World Series if the Midsummer Classic goes its way. The Angels had that advantage over the Giants in last year's first all-Wild Card World Series simply because baseball had annually rotated it among the leagues. In 2003, it didn't seem to matter. Nothing seemed to be an obstacle to these Marlins.
Jack McKeon took over this particular Wild Card champion in May, and he said after Game 6 that you could sense a special presence building when it went through those September Wild Card wars. There was that home-and-away series with Montreal, when the Expos were thrilling their fans before Florida swept them at Pro Player Stadium. Then there was that home-and-away series with Philadelphia, when the Marlins took their biggest step toward a second postseason.
The Marlins finished four games ahead of Houston in the NL Wild Card race and five games ahead of the Phillies. Even though it was a "back-door" playoff berth, no one could ignore the fact that Florida had baseball's best record from mid-May to the end.
"I took this job with the idea that I can turn this club around and make a winner," McKeon said. "I didn't have any idea that we would win the playoffs or win the Wild Card. I had no idea we would get to the World Series and I had no idea that we would win the World Series. But being with these guys and seeing the attitude and the determination, the desire, we were on a mission. We were on a mission since, I would say, the Philadelphia series when we were trying to qualify for the Wild Card. From that day on, we believed we could go to the World Series. And you know, here we are."
Mark Newman is a writer for MLB.com. Barry Bloom, a reporter for MLB.com, contributed to this story, which was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.