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Good to be a wild card

ST. LOUIS -- Somewhere in a remote town in Montana, there is still believed to be one last holdout who thinks that newfangled baseball invention, the wild card, was -- and is -- the ruination of this sport.

Hmmm. Come to think of it, make that two holdouts. We have a feeling there might also be an owner of a baseball team in the Bronx, N.Y., who might share that sentiment.

But now that the Red Sox have roared out to a 2-games-to-zip lead over the Cardinals in this World Series, it's a little too late to revive the old debate on whether the wild card has ruined baseball.

No, the only true debate left now is just how much the wild card has changed baseball.

Let's think about it:

  • If the Red Sox go on to win this Series, it will mean that wild cards have won four of the last eight World Series -- including the last three in a row.

  • Of these last three World Series, one matched up the wild cards from each league (Angels-Giants in 2002) -- and the other two almost did (with the 2003 Red Sox and 2004 Astros both losing the LCS in Game 7).

  • Just once in the 2000s -- a span of five seasons -- has baseball staged a World Series that didn't include at least one wild-card team. Only Yankees-Diamondbacks in 2001 was a duel of two teams that actually did it the old-fashioned way: They finished first.

    We're not sure that, when the wild card was added to this mix 10 years ago, anyone comprehended that it would have this massive an impact on the postseason. But now we know:

    The wild card has changed everything.

    Red Sox first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz was asked Monday where he would rank the wild card on his all-time favorite list of great inventions.

    "I think it's awesome," Mientkiewicz said. "If we didn't have it, I wouldn't be here."

    Right he is. Matter of fact, none of these Red Sox would be here right now.

    Then, however, in one of those trick questions us media sneaks are famous for, we asked: How about that year (2002) Mientkiewicz was with the Twins, and a wild-card team (Anaheim) beat them to keep them from going to the World Series? Did he still think this was an awesome invention back then?

    "Nooooooo," Mientkiewicz laughed. "I hated it."

    OK, so it may still be true that the beauty of this wild-card thing is definitely in the eye of the beholder. And it very well could be a long, long time before anyone in the world will be able to graciously accept losing to a wild card.

    But ask yourself this: Has it really hurt baseball to have teams like the 2002 Angels and 2003 Marlins come along to beat the Yankees in October? If anything, the wild card has helped level the October playing field.

    And now that we're approaching the end of this postseason, has anyone noticed any negatives to the arrival of the Red Sox in another World Series?

    Heck, the ratings have taken off like the Soyuz space station. And there hasn't been this much buzz about any World Series we can remember in decades.

    So obviously, the wild card has done more than just make September more interesting. It has made October infinitely more interesting.

    Baseball always had its postseason upsets, of course, no matter what the format. But at a time when people were beginning to complain openly that baseball had become too predictable, the emergence of the wild card has suddenly made the October tussle for a World Series ring more unpredictable than Paris Hilton.

    And right here, in this very World Series, the Red Sox are a classic example of why that is.

    In some ways, they're actually better built for October than they were for April-through-September. And by that we mean: Who else had a Curt Schilling and a Pedro Martinez to run out there in Games 1 and 2 of the playoffs?

    Meanwhile, their wild-card buddies in the National League, the Astros, were remarkably similar.

    "You look at the pitchers who started Game 1 of those National League series this year," said the Elias Sports Bureau's Steve Hirdt. "The team that had the only two pitchers who were really capable of dominating a game was the wild-card team, with (Roger) Clemens and (Roy) Oswalt. Look at the other teams: The Cardinals started Woody Williams. The Braves started Jaret Wright. And the Dodgers had to scramble to win (so they wound up starting Odalis Perez)."

    Had the Cubs won the wild card, we would be saying the same thing about them, too, of course. So the mere ability that teams like that now have, thanks to the wild card, just to make it into what Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is calling "the tournament" has greatly altered the face of October.

    The wild card also becomes a threat this time of year because it essentially gives a mulligan to good teams that take time to get their acts together, or suffer a major injury (or six). When those teams arrive in October, though, their record is no indication of how good they can be on any given day.

    "I think that makes real baseball sense," Mientkiewicz said. "It means if you have a good team that has injuries, you've got a chance to ride out the storm. Suppose Schilling and Pedro had gone down for a while on this team? With the wild card, you can still hold down the fort till they get healthy."

    But this World Series is also an illustration of the most fundamental question baseball still has to sort out about the wild card:

    How much to penalize a team like the Red Sox, just because it didn't finish first?

    In this particular World Series, clearly, the Red Sox have gotten a lighter sentence than Martha Stewart. Which team has home-field advantage? The Red Sox -- even though it was the Cardinals who won more games (105) than any team in baseball.

    Asked if he thought that was an injustice, La Russa thought about that question for a moment. Then he replied, diplomatically: "No, because the rules are set up at the beginning of the season. And that's the rules."

    Those rules, as you may have heard someplace, attached home-field advantage in this World Series to nothing that happened in the regular season. Instead, they were attached to the results of the All-Star Game.

    So because the American League battered Roger Clemens and won the All-Star Game, the Red Sox get four home games in this Series and the winningest team in the whole sport gets three. We can think of fairer solutions.

    "If you're asking if the rule should be that the American League gets home-field advantage because of the All-Star Game unless the wild card wins," La Russa chuckled, "I'd be all for that this year."

    Someone then observed to La Russa that he could attach this entire home-field mess to the fact that Clemens was pretty much the unofficial host of the whole All-Star bash in his home town. After all, he was still onstage at 1:30 a.m., singing country music at the All-Star Gala the night before the game.

    La Russa's eyebrow arched noticeably at that thought.

    "I want to make sure I don't say anything," La Russa quipped, "because if Roger decides to come back, he'll probably shut us out three times. ... I just think they got him before he got loose. To be honest, I didn't even see the game. But there ain't no way his singing had anything to do with it."

    Nevertheless, the debate will resume this winter -- between MLB and the players' union -- over that All-Star/World Series link. What won't resume is the debate on whether it makes sense to penalize the wild card in other ways.

    "We were penalized," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "At the start of the playoffs, we didn't have home-field advantage in either round. Well, we won a lot more games than the Angels. And we won 98 games in a division where we had to play the Yankees 19 times. But that's the way it is. We never said anything then.

    "So you know what? You show up and play when they tell you to. And that's what we've done."

    They did, as you'll recall, have to win Games 6 and 7 of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium -- something no team had ever done to the Yankees in any postseason series. So if he's saying they didn't exactly have this World Series trip laid on a tee for them, that would be 100 percent correct.

    Nevertheless, it's in the World Series where home-field advantage has proved to be most significant. No team has won a Game 7 on the road in the World Series since 1979.

    And as Hirdt points out, since the Series rules were changed in 1986 to use the DH in AL parks and have pitchers hit in NL parks, home winning percengage has risen dramatically. Before 1986, home teams had only a .534 winning percentage in World Series games (258-225). Since 1986, through Game 2 of this Series, home teams had a .630 winning percentage (63-37).

    So there is more merit than ever to awarding home-field advantage in each round to the team with the best regular-season record. But there are two questions baseball still has to wrestle on that.

    The first is: What if that team is a wild-card team?

    Players, increasingly, are favoring seeding the playoff teams simply by record, whether they were wild cards or not. And since wild cards have a better record than at least one first-place team just about every year, you can understand their logic.

    But the idea of the unbalanced schedule, in theory, is to attach some old-fashioned significance to finishing first -- a concept the other pro sports have just about abandoned. And if that's the goal, the second question is: Is home-field advantage in the LDS or LCS enough of an advantage?

    Hirdt's answer is: No, because home teams in those two rounds are barely above .500. So the proposal he has advanced -- and that baseball has even kicked around -- is this:

    Each league would add one wild-card team each season. But in order to advance to the "final four" in each league, the two wild cards would have to play a one-game, win-or-go-home playoff the day after the season.

    The advantages are obvious: You would kick off the playoffs with two games that had an NCAA tournament feel to them. And you would just about force each wild-card team to use its best pitcher in that game -- which lessens the chance that an underdog could steal a first-round series from a better team just because it had one great pitcher who could win two games all by himself.

    Having to use that pitcher before the Division Series would be a more significant penalty for the wild-card team than not having home-field advantage. Plus, it would add more teams to the September free-for-all.

    So in many ways, this is almost a no-lose idea -- if baseball ever decides to expand the playoffs. And that, you can rest assured, is going to be actively discussed in the not-so-distant future.

    "I like the idea that different teams have the opportunity to get into the postseason and win it," Hirdt said. "The only reason I've ever advocated the addition of a second wild-card team was to restore meaning to winning a division title. ... All I'm saying is, the wild-card team should have a little harder road."

    It's a worthy argument. But after what happened in the ALCS last week, he would have a tough time convincing these Red Sox they could possibly have had a harder road to this World Series.

    Maybe if they win it all, that wild-card debate will rage again. But it sure won't rage in New England -- where the wild card would then be considered the greatest idea since the Boston Tea Party.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.