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About Jon
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1) using profanity or any euphemisms for profanity
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The Wild Card Reveals Who We Are
2003-06-24 08:30
by Jon Weisman

In your mind, if you're a fan of the Dodgers, what's at stake each time your team plays the Giants this week?

In my mind, it's the playoff berth that comes with winning the National League West title. And that's a very specific choice of words.

It's not the division title alone that's important. Yes, it's fine to win one - it's a nice statistic, like a Kevin Brown winning an ERA title - especially if you haven't won a title in quite some time. But your overall goal remains winning the World Series, and missing out on the division title doesn't preclude that.

However, the wild card isn't what you're going after either. Here in June, there are eight National League teams over .500 and within six games of each other in the wild-card standings. The wild-card prize is like the inheritance you might get from that rich aunt you don't really know, depending on her mood swings. It's just not something you count on today.

No, it's all about the playoff berth that comes with a division title.

What this means is that while the wild card has diluted the importance of how a divisional race ends, it hasn't diluted the importance of that race while it's in progress.

If you're within shouting distance of a division title - and that still includes every team over .500 right now - the divisional race is the one that probably concerns you the most. Because in that race, you have the fewest teams to beat, and you will face those teams more often head-to-head.

That latter reason is why the Philadelphia Phillies, who are 8 1/2 games behind the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves but only 3 1/2-games behind the NL wild-card leading Dodgers, still must have the NL East race on their minds. The Phillies play the Braves 10 more times this year; they play the Dodgers three more times. One could argue that they actually have more control of their destiny in the NL East.

Meanwhile, a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates is closer in the standings to the NL Central-leading Cubs than the NL wild-card leading Dodgers, all the more reason for such a team to be preoccupied with the divisional race.

In a sense, the wild card serves no purpose for most of the regular season. One of the arguments for having a wild card is that it keeps more teams (and their fans) thinking that they are still alive for a playoff spot. But of the 30 teams in major league baseball today, really only three teams - Anaheim, Florida and the New York Mets - need the wild card to kindle their hopes. (And even a fan of the Marlins and Mets could question whether or not keeping their hopes alive is a good thing.) The rest are so far out of contention, not even the wild card can help.

By August, will more teams join those three? Quite possibly, if another division leader separates itself from the pack. However, it's also possible that the only major change in the standings in the next two months will bring Atlanta back to earth, meaning that even the Marlins and even the Mets would then be within range of an amazing divisional comeback.

Until September, because so much can change before the final month of the season, the wild card is irrelevant.

Once September arrives, the wild card can have its most positive effect - by manufacturing a race between good second- or third-place teams who live in a division with a runaway leader. However, as you know, the wild card also brings risks to September - as in a case when two teams within the same division are unchallenged as the best two teams in the league. Then, the wild card has eliminated the best race of the season.

Now, back to my original question: In your mind, what's at stake right now each time the Dodgers play the Giants?

Right now, we've got an honest-to-goodness pennant race - where every game counts and where we can fret over every loss. The existence of the wild card is of little consolation to a Dodger fan, even though the Dodgers are currently the wild-card leaders, because that position of "Wild-Card Leader" is so ephemeral.

But what would you rather have in September?

1) The Dodgers and Giants battling for the NL West crown, with no wild card consolation prize available?
2) The Dodgers and Giants battling for the NL West crown, with the wild card assured for one of the teams.
3) The Dodgers and Giants battling for the NL West crown, and at the same time, battling with teams outside the division for the wild card.

As the Angels have shown, winning a World Series takes the sting out of losing a divisional race. The playoffs bring their own excitement, which you can't ignore. So as a fan of the Dodgers, yes, believe it or not, not knowing whether the Dodgers would beat the Giants, I would sell my soul and wish for Option 2. The playoff berth is what matters.

The playoff berth gives you a chance to be a champion. The legacy of being champion trumps that of being a finalist exponentially. Baseball's greatness is in the bounty of its intermediate events, its hits, walks, triples and balks - that help you measure achievement. But as far as goals go, as far as ambitions go, the only one a baseball team has is winning the World Series. Winning the World Series is truly forever. Throughout the 1950s, the Dodgers were great, but it's the championship of 1955 that resonates throughout the country.

No matter how many teams there are, getting into the playoffs is like a minor-leaguer getting called to the Show. It's why an NCAA basketball team celebrates winning the 64th spot in March Madness and the right to be annihilated by Duke. It gives you your shot at glory. It's the only means to the ultimate end.

It takes a special kind of person to root for a close pennant race that involves his team. It puts your shot at glory on the line. It risks long-term satisfaction for short-term thrills. Imagine yourself a Dodger fan in August 1951. Would you have rooted for the Giants to make it a race? If so, you are probably one of a kind.

Fifty-two years later, it might feel different. But put yourself in the moments as August 1951 became October 1951. As a Dodger fan, wouldn't you rather have made the playoffs as a wild-card team, rendering an historic pennant chase meanlingless?

Enjoy these June games between the Giants and the Dodgers, which combine the best of all possible worlds - two division leaders battling for the pennant, no qualifications, no guaranteed consolation prizes. Treat these games like September games. Right now, the chance to win the World Series is on the line. In three months, it may still be on the line. But on the other hand, you might find yourself in September with a wild-card berth at minimum in hand, just killing time until October.

Either way, the playoff-bound fan will still be happy. And that's sort of sad. The wild card increases a fan's chance in September to feel glory in October. It caters to selfish needs and desires. Selfishness is a fact of life; selfishness is real. No argument there. I just think that in a better world, we wouldn't have the wild card as an annual reminder that we are selfish people.

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