Expect a Wild run in 2009 playoffs
Recent history shows little edge for division champs
Whether there has been a true "Team of the Decade" in Major League Baseball will be subject to some debate in the remaining days of 2009, depending perhaps on who reaches and who wins the 105th World Series in the first week of November.
But for those who have paid close attention every autumn starting with 2000, there is arguably a better candidate than any individual team. It is the decade of the Wild Card.
The Red Sox and Rockies each will open this postseason in that role, and it would not be any more surprising if they should meet for the second time in three years than it would for any other World Series matchup to occur. It became commonplace in this decade for Wild Cards not only to reach the Fall Classic but also to win it, and it has removed all past conventional wisdom that teams that have the best records and win their divisions have a big advantage going in.
Eight Wild Cards have reached the World Series in this decade, starting with the Mets in their 2000 Subway Series against the Yankees, and Wild Cards won it all from 2002-04. Last year marked the first time since 2001 that a Wild Card winner did not reach the Fall Classic, as the two East Division champions met there. So if the Red Sox and Rockies aren't able to get that far in the next month, it would be the first time it happened in consecutive autumns.
|Year||AL Wild Card||Finish||NL Wild Card||Finish|
|2000||A's||Lost in ALDS||Mets||Lost in WS|
|2001||A's||Lost in ALDS||Cardinals||Lost in NLDS|
|2002||Angels||Won WS||Giants||Lost in WS|
|2003||Red Sox||Lost in ALCS||Marlins||Won WS|
|2004||Red Sox||Won WS||Astros||Lost in NLCS|
|2005||Red Sox||Lost in ALDS||Astros||Lost in WS|
|2006||Tigers||Lost in WS||Dodgers||Lost in NLDS|
|2007||Yankees||Lost in ALDS||Rockies||Lost in WS|
|2008||Red Sox||Lost in ALCS||Brewers||Lost in NLDS|
The Wild Card has increased the overall level of enthusiasm for the national pastime -- without question. It has been the first full decade for it, having been implemented as part of an expansion of the postseason field from four to eight clubs starting with 1995. It has given more markets a chance to get a piece of the postseason pie and has been a chief driver of the repeated overall MLB attendance records that became common this decade.
Of the 30 clubs, only seven haven't reached the postseason in this decade: Blue Jays, Orioles, Rangers and Royals in the American League, and Nationals, Pirates and Reds in the National League.
That is 77 percent of Major League Baseball -- more than three-fourths -- represented in the postseason this decade. The Wild Card has played a huge role in making that possible, and we saw the latest example just this past weekend at Dodger Stadium. What a scene it was as the Rockies-Dodgers showdown series opened to much significance, with both clubs guaranteed a postseason berth but neither club knowing whether it would be the NL West champion or NL Wild Card (and thus opening on the road).
"We're in the playoffs and that was our goal all year," said Rockies outfielder Brad Hawpe. "We have a chance to win a World Series."
On Wednesday, the Rockies will open their NL Division Series at Philadelphia, meaning a Wild Card stands in the way of a possible first repeat champion in baseball. It will mark the third year in a row that the Phillies open against a Wild Card, and you don't have to remind Philadelphia fans what happened in 2007. The Rockies came into Citizens Bank Park on their end-of-season tear and breezed past the Phillies for a sweep, led by Matt Holliday, who homered in each of the first two games at Philly.
The Phillies aren't the same team they were back then, either. Last year, the Brewers won the NL Wild Card and the Phillies eliminated them in four.
The Red Sox will open against the AL West champion Angels in Anaheim -- probably on Thursday, if the Yankees choose to start their ALDS against Detroit or Minnesota on Wednesday, as most people expect. It is nothing new to Red Sox fans. Boston is an AL Wild Card winner for the seventh time, and that is four times more than any other club (Yankees have three). Yankees fans will tell you that is because Boston simply came in second to them for so many of those years, but be that as it may, the Red Sox have taken advantage.
"I don't care how it comes," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, who won his first ring with Florida in 2003 as an NL Wild Card participant. "We deserve to celebrate just like the other teams that have made the playoffs. We're excited to be here. This is hopefully step [No.] 1. I think we've got our team where we want it to be, and we're excited."
Not having home-field advantage certainly didn't hurt them in 2004, the year the Red Sox reversed the Curse of the Bambino and clinched the AL pennant at Yankee Stadium following the greatest comeback in sports history. By the time Boston got to the Fall Classic, it almost didn't matter who was on the other side, as the Red Sox swept the Cardinals.
This mad dash to the World Series by Wild Cards really started in 2002, the only time two Wild Cards met in that event. It was an incredible World Series, an all-Cali bash in which the Angels beat the Giants in seven. It started a run of Wild Cards in the World Series -- Marlins in 2003 (beat the Yankees), Red Sox in '04, Astros in 2005 (lost to the White Sox), Tigers in '06 (lost to the Cardinals), and Rockies in '07 (lost to the Red Sox).
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.