A View From Studio 3: Finding the right format
It was Sept. 23, 1993, and the Atlanta Braves were a week away from winning a third consecutive division title. Greg Maddux was finishing his first season with the Braves, en route to his second of four consecutive National League Cy Young awards. Maddux defeated El Presidente, Dennis Martinez, and Montreal that day. That victory, coupled with a Giants win at the Astrodome, kept the Braves 2 1/2 games in front of San Francisco in the NL West race with one week to go in the regular season. It would be perhaps, the most memorable division race ever. And the last of its kind.
Think about how many things in baseball have changed since then. In no particular order: Major League baseball is no longer played in Montreal. Many young fans have never even heard of Olympic Stadium. The Astros haven't played in the Astrodome since 1999. And the best chance you have of even catching a glimpse of baseball being played there is if you watch "Bad News Bears: Breaking Training" (An American classic, starring William Devane and featuring cameo appearances by Bob Watson and Enos Cabell).
Anyway, Maddux is now a late-40's retiree awaiting a call from Cooperstown. Barring an event in which the world stops spinning on its axis, Maddux will be inducted into the Hall of Fame next summer.
Back in '93, the Braves captured the division crown on the season's final day. Their record: 104-58. The Giants finished with 103 wins and missed the postseason. That's right, 103 wins, and San Francisco missed the postseason. It was part of the deal back then. If you want a ticket to the playoffs, win your division. Simple. Today, that's unfathomable. Teams typically reach Wild Card status with a minimum of 88 or 89 wins. In 1993, there was no Wild Card. Just four divisions and four playoff spots. That's so retro. For some of us in the over 40 set, it's so cool.
Jump ahead 20 years and we are embarking on the first completely "fair" playoff format since the "old days." From 1995-2011, The Wild Card teams were treated as near equals to the division winners. There was no penalty or obstacle for finishing as the best non-division winner. Wild Card teams weren't even always required to face the team in their league with the best record in order to advance to the League Championship Series. In short, the format created greater fan interest, but it was not "air tight," so to speak.
Finally, in 2012, extra Wild Card teams were added. Two from each league emerged, and those clubs faced off in a one-game playoff. Win or go home. It's must-see TV when there is truly no room for mistake.
The trickle-down effect was one baseball purists had waited for since the Wild Card emerged nearly two decades ago. Division winners were finally able to enjoy their achievement by resting players for a few day,s and in many cases, align their pitching rotations so they had their ace ready to go in Game 1 of the Division Series. But there was still a big problem. In order to accommodate the extra wild card team and eliminate an extra travel day, the DS was switched to a 2-3 format. So the team with the better record started the series with two road games, and then returned home for three games. Turns out, three of the four DS winners played Games 3, 4 and 5 on the road, meaning that three teams eliminated in that round had better regular-season records than the club that advanced.
Perhaps that was a coincidence. Perhaps not. Either way, it was not a fair format.
That problem has been fixed for the upcoming postseason. The teams with the better records will host Game 1, Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 5 of the LDS. A true home-field advantage.
So here we are, in the final days of the 2013 season, and the NL Central race is still hot. While it's a far cry from what we witnessed in 1993, it's the closest thing we have this season to that type of drama in terms of a division race. We know with almost 100 percent certainty that three clubs from that division will reach October, yet only one will earn the luxury of kicking back and preparing for a best-of-five series.
Times change. Formats change. Fans' expectations change. Even if you clamor for the days of old, take solace in the new, new format. Baseball finally has it right ... again.
Matt Yallof is the co-host of The Rundown on MLB Network from 2-4 p.m. ET. Follow him on twitter @mattyallofmlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.