Learning to Love the MLB's Crazy New Wildcard Games

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Are tonight's single play-in matches an affront to baseball or a needed shakeup?

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic),Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), discuss the MLB's new playoff format.


Gentlemen,

Amid the Olympics, the Joe Paterno saga, the replacement referees and the NHL lockout, the greater sports community has overlooked the biggest, craziest, most exciting new development in sports: the MLB's new playoff format. But this week, the super-tight American League has brought Bud Selig's zany experiment to the forefront of sports discussions nationwide. And despite the potential scheduling nightmares and mind-numbingly long list of postseason scenarios, boy it is fun.

Under the new format, each league will send the three division winners and two wild card teams to the playoffs. The two wild cards in each league will play each other in winner-take-all play-in games on Friday, and the winners will advance to the divisional series. The concern among many in baseball was that there would be a tie for the second wild card spot, leading to a playoff just to get into the play-in game to get into the real playoffs... you get the idea.

That didn't happen. Complicated? Sure. A potential nightmare for ticket sales, TV schedules and the blood pressures of diehard fans across the country? Absolutely. But it's wild, unpredictable, and a formula for one magical day after another in this Wild Wild Card week. On Tuesday night, the Yankees came back to beat the Red Sox in 12 innings to stay a game ahead of the Orioles in the AL East, while the Athletics tied the Rangers in the AL West. And that was only Tuesday! The rest of the was almost as exciting, so you can count me as an unabashed fan of Bud's crazily awesome new postseason format.

You agree, Patrick?

–Jake

Jake,

I wanted to hate baseball's new wild card play-in games. Honest. Wanted to hate them because they seemed like a half-baked way to repeat the once-in-a-lifetime magic of last season's final day, when four games decided two playoff spots and two ended in walk-off wins.Wanted to hate them because they seem like the first step toward adding more teams and more games to baseball's postseason, a seemingly inevitable television cash grab that could eventually push the World Series into mid-November. (Mark my words: Someday, the Fall Classic will be played at neutral warm weather locations, like the Super Bowl. Just wait). Heck, I wanted to hate them because I detest the NCAA men's basketball tournament's "First Four" play-in games, a sham that annually screws at least two small-time schools out of enjoying their one shining moment as sacrificial No. 16-seed fodder.

Thing is, I can't hate. Not when I think the play-in game is the most exciting thing to hit baseball since, well, steroids.

Look, baseball has a thing about stodgy tradition. Fathers and sons. Comparing eras. Field of Dreams. Yadda yadda yadda. And I get that. In fact, getting that is part of what makes the tweaked wild card format so appealing. The NFL makes a change? Big deal. The NFL changes stuff all the time: pass interference rules, concussion guidelines, player discipline, BountyGate evidence, being at war with Eurasia. But when Major League Baseball decides to spice things up? It's hot. Like finding out your longtime partner wants to do more than just read "50 Shades of Grey." Indeed, the unfair, arbitrary, one-bad-bounce-and-adios nature of the play-in game cuts so contrary to baseball's measured, reasonable, prove-it-over-an-endless-season ethos that I can't help but love it. (Heck, maybe it will help Billy Beane's [expletive] finally work in the playoffs).

Besides, the best thing about playoff baseball is that all the game's regular season negatives—limited action; endless standing around; too many manager seed-spitting dugout closeup shots; obsessive-compulsive between-pitches batting glove-tug routines; the crushing, soulless inevitability of mathematical predictions coming true due to large sample size; and did we mention the standing around?—become huge pluses in October. The postseason is all about anticipation. Exquisite, excruciating, edge-of-your-seat tension. Knowing that every pitch, swing and dribbler toward Bill Buckner's waiting glove can mean the difference winning and going home. Knowing that anyone can do anything in a single game, and that while there's statistically no such thing as a clutch player, there is also Derek Jeter. The new format means more of that, both during the play-in games themselves and in the wild n' crazy days leading up to them.

So yeah: I'm all in. Hampton, are you ready to bounce around on an invisible horse and go Selig Style?

–Patrick

Folks,

Fighting for yesteryear is never fun, especially in a hidebound sport like our National Pastoral. Um... Pastime. Resisting change in MLB can make anyone feel like a Grumpy Old Man, always complaining that life was better before the DH, back when no team made the postseason without winning a division, and all the smartphones were rotary dial.

MLB's postseason mission creep surely fits what's happening in the wider world of American sport. Big 10 basketball got their postseason tournament. NASCAR went to a postseason-like Chase format. College football tore up their bowl system, turning a charming if rickety old ritual into half-baked championship. As a nation we no longer seem to care as much about who proves themselves best over an entire season. We only care who gets hot at the end.

One could claim that this national fetish for play-ins, playoffs, sudden deaths, walk-offs, and wildcards is emblematic of a broader shift in the culture. Especially now that even baseball, our snowglobe from the 19th century, has been sucked into the Sudden Death cult, you could argue that the change in our sports represents a sad commentary on the state of the American Dream, speaking to our collective loss of belief in the idea that hard work and perseverance will be rewarded, and the replacement by a half-desperate gambler's faith in mere flukes, hot streaks, and lucky breaks.

You could argue that. But you would sound like a pompous toad.

It's a freaking game. MLB's postseason changes might offend me in some vaguely cranky way, but not enough to have kept me from watching a play-in game, or to keep me from watching every wildcard match-up with slavish devotion.

Life is change. Everyone and everything, even pro sports leagues, must adapt to survive. And MLB, finally, for once, seems to be getting it right. Let's celebrate that.

Jake, that play-in game for a trip to a playoff game which leads to the actual playoffs sounds like a lot of fun, doesn't it? Patrick, after making "television cash grab" sound like a bad thing, you make playing the World Series at a neutral, warm-weather site sound like the End Times. Why? Your words are duly marked. Still, spending two otherwise winter-ish weeks in, like, Miami would be more fun and make for a better brand of baseball than shuffling between Baltimore and Detroit.

Besides, what's the real danger of single game play-in? Too many upsets? Oh. America may not have actually been an underdog at anything since the War of 1812, but we love a dark-horse canine nevertheless.

–Hampton

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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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