ARLINGTON The wheels of change grind slowly in the hidebound world of Major League Baseball but there is reason to believe a breakthrough is coming that will add two more teams to the post-season mix.
For now, you can forget additional use of replay, or a shorter season or any indication that Bud Selig is about to retire. Those issues aside, Selig is now talking almost enthusiastically about adding two more playoff wild-card teams. If it can be logistically worked out, it might happen as early as next year. If not, the target date is 2012.
This is the 16th season of the wild-card concept, a revolutionary notion when it was first instituted after the labour chaos of 1994. Prior to that, each league was divided into two divisions and a grand total of four teams made the playoffs.
When baseball came back in 1995 after the 1994 lockout, each league was divided into the current three divisions. The three division winners in each league automatically make the post-season along with the team with the best record of the rest, essentially doubling the number of playoff teams from four to eight.
Wild-card teams have done remarkably well in the postseason. Wild cards have won four of the 16 World Series since the change. Five other wild cards have made it to the Series and lost. So, of the 32 World Series particpants in the last 16 years, 28% have been wild cards. Since wild cards represent only 25% of the field at the start of every post-season, you could say they have overachieved relative to the division winners.
Selig is indicating that an additional wild-card team in each league could be added as soon as next season, but more likely in 2012. How that affects the overall playoff format is yet to be determined.
"I like it enough, so we'll seriously consider it," Selig said Sunday night before Game 4 of the World Series. "Is eight out of 30 enough? Is that fair? And that's the basic question here, at least for me.
"Two more would give us 10, and 10 out of 30, I still think, is a rational mix. But then the next question is how do you do it and what form does it take?"
Expanding the wild card has often been used as an argument that would level the playing field for the Blue Jays in the American League East, but the truth is that in only one season Ñ 1998 Ñ would the Jays have earned a playoff spot if there were two wild cards in each league.
That, of course, assumes that the standings would have settled out the same in every year, had there been more incentive (i.e., a second wild-card berth). The likelihood is that there would have been more competitive energy spent in September by the teams right on the edge of the wild-card fight.
And that's one of the major arguments to be made in expanding the playoff format. Every team wants to be able to play meaningful games in September. An additional opportunity to make the playoffs can only help keep the fan base, not to mention the players, interested deeper into the season.
There are two obvious formats to accommodate an extra playoff team in each league. The first would be a best-of-three series between the wild cards that might delay the start of the division series by a day or two. The other format might be a one-game playoff on the Monday after the conclusion of the regular season.
"I've had some managers tell me we can't play 162 games, then wind up in a playoff for one game," Selig said. "So, you're going to get both sides of the argument Ñ and they're very strong in that opinion, by the way."
However it all fits together, it can only be a good thing for fan interest. Anything that can keep more teams in the hunt deeper into the season, thus keeping fans from turning it off on Labour Day would seem to be a no-brainer.