Wild Card celebrates 15 years of excitement
Ranking the top five Wild Card races in baseball history
Happy 15th birthday, Wild Card.
In some ways, it's hard to believe that it's been that long since Major League Baseball and its fans were energized with Commissioner Bud Selig's controversial addition of a non-division-winning postseason team.
But it also hasn't seemed like 15 years since it wasn't part of the game.
"It has been an incredible success, no question of that," Selig said. "It has worked extraordinarily well. But when I think of the pounding that I took at first: 'Oh, Bud's ruining the game,' or 'Oh, that'll never work,' now when people talk to me about it, they're saying, 'It's wonderful. What would we do without it?'"
With the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants duking it out for this year's National League Wild Card and the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers going toe to toe in the American League, it's time to reminisce over the last decade and a half of Wild Card baseball.
Here are our top five Wild Card races over the past 15 years:
1. National League 1999: Mr. V. and his Mets' Wild ride
Long story short: The Bobby Valentine-led Mets were one game behind Atlanta in the NL East and four ahead in the Wild Card race after the close of play on Sept. 19, but New York was swept by the Braves in a three-game set, lost seven in a row and eight of nine, and ended up two games behind in the Wild Card standings after the games on Sept. 30 with four to play.
Fortunately for Mets fans, the team won the next four to force a one-game Wild Card playoff in Cincinnati, and on Oct. 4 at Riverfront Stadium in front of more than 54,000 fans, Edgardo Alfonzo got the Mets going with a two-run homer in the first inning and Al Leiter went the distance for a two-hit shutout, striking out seven as the Mets prevailed, 5-0.
"Any game like this, you feel the emotion," Leiter told reporters at the time. "We get up 3-0, and in a game like this, I could tell some of their guys were pressing, swinging at bad pitches."
"This is just a start," Valentine told reporters at the time, and boy, Bobby V. wasn't kidding.
Backup catcher Todd Pratt's homer won the NL Division Series, setting up one of the weirdest NL Championship Series ever.
The Mets lost three in a row to the Braves, rallied to take the next two facing elimination, including a 15-inning Game 5 won on Robin Ventura's walk-off homer-turned-single, and the Mets finally bowed out in Game 6 on a Kenny Rogers-to-Andruw Jones walk-off walk.
"We didn't win the World Series that year, so a lot of people probably forget how crazy that season really was," said Darryl Hamilton, an outfielder on that Mets team. "But if I wrote a book about that year and that team, it would be one heck of a read."
2. NL 2007: Did he touch the plate?
The Colorado Rockies won 21 of 22 games en route to the 2007 World Series, and one of those came in the one-game playoff against the San Diego Padres to decide the NL Wild Card berth, the third such game in Major League history.
The Padres had held the Wild Card lead since Aug. 2, but the Rockies stormed their way into contention and an eventual deadlock as the 162-game regular-season schedule ended.
The teams then took a 6-6 tie to the 13th inning at Coors Field, and the Padres scratched out two runs to put them three outs from the postseason. They turned to their closer, Trevor Hoffman, the game's all-time saves leader, to do what he does best.
But Hoffman gave up doubles to Kazuo Matsui and Troy Tulowitzki before Matt Holliday tripled to tie the game at 8. The Padres had Hoffman intentionally walk Todd Helton before Jamey Carroll came to the plate.
Carroll flied out to shallow right field and Holliday tagged up from third base. Brian Giles' throw beat Holliday to the plate, but Holliday slid head-first to the outside of catcher Michael Barrett, who couldn't handle the ball, which rolled toward the backstop.
Holliday got his right hand under Barrett's cleat and smacked his face on the dirt, leaving him motionless for a few moments as home-plate umpire Tim McClelland ruled him safe and ushered the Rockies into the postseason.
But did Holliday actually touch the plate? Video has been inconclusive and the argument has been as partisan as any political issue in recent memory. Leave it to Holliday, who probably knows better than anyone.
"I think so," Holliday said at the time. "I mean, the umpire called me safe, so I must have touched the plate."
3. NL 1998: Gone in 30 seconds
Longtime manager Dusty Baker has suffered some tough breaks in the postseason, like the ones inflicted on him by the Florida Marlins and a Cubs fan named Steve Bartman in 2003 and the Angels and Scott Spiezio in 2002.
Those are his most publicized bad beats, but his 1998 experience at the helm of the Giants shouldn't be forgotten, either.
Baker's San Francisco club had won six in a row to close back into contention for a shot at the NL Wild Card berth entering its final regular-season game in Colorado. But in the span of what seemed like less than a minute, an early seven-run lead at Coors Field turned into a 9-8 loss and the Cubs, which had entered the day tied in the standings with the Giants, lost in 11 innings at Houston.
"There was a 30-second swing between them losing and us losing," Baker said that day. "We are happy going to Chicago. We could be going home to paint the garage."
A one-game playoff was set for Wrigley Field the next day, and Cubs starter Steve Trachsel, who later pitched in October for the Mets, was ready for his first taste of extracurricular activity.
"It was insanity," he told Newsday a few years later. "Just getting to the ballpark. All of the streets were packed with people."
Chicago sports legend Michael Jordan threw out the first pitch and Trachsel fed off the energy of the long-suffering Cubs faithful.
Effectively -- and appropriately -- "wild," the righty took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, while walking six and striking out six, as the Cubs won, 5-3, before being swept by Atlanta in the NLCS.
4. 1995 AL: The Yankees, Angels and refuse-to-lose Mariners
The debut of the Wild Card brought a bizarre love triangle to the American League, where the Angels built a huge AL West lead, frittered it away and rallied for a one-game playoff for the division against surging Seattle while the Yankees waited and waited, wondering if their second-place finish in the AL East would get them first-ever Wild Card dibs.
The Yankees rode a sizzling final five weeks of the season in which they won 26 of their final 33 games, including 11 of their last 12, to comfortably watch as Randy Johnson and the Mariners beat the Angels, 9-1, in the one-game playoff that decided whom they'd meet in the AL Division Series.
"I don't want anybody to feel apologetic or sorry for getting in the playoffs this way," said then-Yankees manager Buck Showalter. "If there's someone who doesn't think we're one of the four best teams in the league, they're kidding themselves. We belong here."
They proved it, taking the "refuse-to-lose" Mariners to five games before Edgar Martinez's double scored Ken Griffey Jr. in Game 5 and Seattle's baseball tradition was essentially born.
"During the tie-breaker, I was intense, focused on playing and angry that we were losing," former Angels utility man and current team broadcaster Rex Hudler said. "But after the game, as I walked across the field to get to the bus, I saw how alive the Kingdome was.
"I was thinking that there was no way I could be upset. Any pain I might have been feeling was taken away by the fact that a baseball city had been put on the map. Seattle has been baseball-crazy ever since then."
Meanwhile, very quietly, the disappointment of a historic collapse planted the seeds of a future pennant contender in Anaheim, where young Angels Troy Percival, Tim Salmon, Garret Anderson and Orlando Palmeiro would mature into World Series champions seven years later.
5. AL 2000: Seattle does it again
The Mariners had held a lead in the AL West since late June, but they lost the division lead to the Oakland A's by a half-game with a three-game set against the Angels in Anaheim left in the regular season.
Unfortunately for the Mariners, the veteran members of the Angels remembered very vividly what happened five years earlier and took it out on Seattle in the first game, winning, 9-3.
"My satisfaction is from not watching another team celebrate," Angels closer Troy Percival told the Los Angeles Times that night. "We saw that in 1995, and we don't want to see that again. There's always been a rivalry with us and Seattle since I've been here. They've knocked us out before."
Coupled with a Cleveland win over Toronto, the Mariners had only a one-game lead in the Wild Card standings and still trailed Oakland by a half-game.
But the Mariners came out swinging the next night in Anaheim, beating the Angels, 21-9, and then took the getaway game, 5-2, to clinch the Wild Card. They would go on to upset the Chicago White Sox in the ALDS before bowing out to the Yankees in the ALCS, but the pieces were in place for the historic 116-win season they would enjoy the following year.
"It went down to the last game played in the Majors," then-Mariners manager Lou Piniella said in a raucous visitors' clubhouse.
"We were the only one left with a game that meant anything. With all the ramifications ... we've been holding it in for a long while. All the scenarios, I didn't care about the scenarios. We had to come to play."
Doug Miller is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.