Last night I watched Cardinals-Pirates on ESPN and it was a breathtaking night of baseball for me, so memorable that I found myself remembering how much September 28, 2011 captured the heart of the baseball nation, and then getting sort of mad over that dredged up memory.
That night will go down in history as quite possibly ushering in the double-wildcard era of MLB. I've heard sports yakkers muse about how Bud Selig wanted to recreate that night and set to work creating the wild card playoff. Just to refresh our memories, September 28, 2011 featured 2 games in the AL to decide the AL wildcard and 2 games in the NL to decide the NL wildcard. Boston and Tampa Bay were tied and St. Louis and Atlanta were tied going into the night. Each of the 4 games was on National TV and the whole Baseball world was watching breathlessly. Everyone talked afterward about how awesome it was. TB rallied against Mariano Rivera, while at Camden Yards, Jonathon Papelbon (everyone's favorite punching back this week) blew a save against the Orioles. St. Louis clobbered Houston early, then watched in fascination as Philadelphia stunned the Braves with a 9th inning comeback and won in 13 innings. Tampa Bay and St. Louis snatched the wildcards in a night of all-out frenzy that had all of MLB buzzing (not just then: yesterday, a Cubs blogger pointed out that 9/28/2011 is one reason why the Cubs are already in the postseason this year).
I remember that night as well as anyone else, and it was exciting, breathtaking even, especially in the AL with 2 almost simultaneous walk-offs.
Here's the thing: these 4 teams were fighting over a SECOND PLACE PRIZE -- a booby prize, if you will. Heck in the AL, they were literally breaking a tie for SECOND PLACE.
Tonight, I watched 2 teams scratching and clawing at each other, fighting over FIRST PLACE and a DIVISION TITLE. They were engaged in a battle to see who is the BEST team in their division, not SECOND BEST (sorry for all the shouting, but it really is what I feel like doing when I think about this).
And then I think of those late September dramatics that are practically impossible now. Like Toronto at Detroit, 1987 tied for first with a weekend series at Tiger stadium for all the marbles. The entire nation watched two teams fight it out for the AL East TITLE. Winner advances, loser goes home. Our hearts broke for Manuel Lee, playing in place of Tony Fernandez, who made 2 errors in the Friday game won by the Tigers 4-3. The Saturday contest clinched the title for the Tigers 3-2 in 12 innings. Both games were on NBC and I remember watching them both. And both teams finished with 96 wins or better (for good measure, the Tigers completed the sweep on Sunday to finish 98-64), not unlike this year's Cardinals and Pirates.
And all anyone would want to talk about today is how unfair it was back then that a team like the Blue Jays was kept out of the postseason while the relatively mediocre Twins got to play the Tigers in the ALCS, instead of talking about how breathtakingly exciting it was to watch that weekend series for all the AL East marbles.
Then there was the last weekend in September, 1973 with the Pirates, the Cardinals, and the Mets all fighting for first place in the NL East, and the Mets at Wrigley for a 4 games series (the Cubs weren't that far behind these 3; the NL East was extremely weak that year). As longtime Cardinals fans no doubt painfully recall, if the Cubs had taken care of business that weekend, and the Pirates had won their makeup game with San Diego, there could have been a 3-way tie for first at 81-81. The Cardinals had just taken a series from the Cubs and a series from the Phillies to end the season at .500. We all watched the Mets and Cubs get rained out on Friday and Saturday, then split a DH on Sunday. The Mets won the first game on Monday, making the final game of the series and Pittsburgh's trip out west unnecessary. Not the same high quality baseball as in 1987, but we still watched because only one team was going to emerge with the right to move on.
Go back even further and you find the final week of 1967 in the American League with Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and Minnesota all practically neck-and-neck with each other. The Twins and Red Sox jockeyed back and forth early in the week, setting up a weekend series at Fenway for all the marbles, while the White Sox and Tigers stayed right there as well. The Red Sox tied the Twins on Saturday the 31st setting up a one-game, winner take all contest for the AL pennant. As a White Sox fan, I know I was glued to the action the whole week, which was a treat for me because my White Sox weren't on TV much back then (
If I wanted to, I'm sure I could find tons more examples of great pennant race climaxes that captured the nation -- we all know about 1951 in the NL, don't we? -- because multiple teams were fighting it out for FIRST PLACE with everything on the line and not just for seeding.
I'm sorry, but September 28, 2011 will always be second-rate in the pennant-race drama sweepstakes for me.
As for the wild card era? Well, gee, let's look at the final weekend in 1996 with the Padres 1 game back of the Dodgers and a weekend series at Chavez Ravine to decide the NL West title... except, WAIT NO BOTH TEAMS WERE ALREADY IN (after the Padres beat the Dodgers that Friday night, that is, eliminating the Expos from wildcard contention). Tony Gwynn and company doubled down on Saturday to tie the Dodgers at 90-71 going into Sunday. I seem to recall both teams resting some of their regulars that day, but baseball-reference begs to differ (the Dodgers did start Wayne Kirby in CF instead of Steve Finley). However, my point is, nobody cared, because the teams had no reason to go hard against each other because they were both already slotted into the Division Series round. The winner of the Sunday game would host the Cardinals and the loser would travel to Atlanta. The game actually looks like it could have been exciting, the Padres winning 2-0 in 11 innings. I distinctly remember this weekend series being greeted by the rest of the baseball world with a collective yawn. Maybe we tuned in Friday to see the Padres clinch a playoff spot, but that's it.
Without the wild card, the entire world would have tuned in all weekend, and would have been captivated.
I'm probably cherry-picking, of course, and we still had 1995 in the AL West (Mariners-Angels tiebreaker game) after the Mariners lost 2 of 3 to the Rangers and the Angels won 2 of 3 from the A's. And as a White Sox fan, I'll never forget the blackout game on September 30, 2008. Here's the thing, though: in both cases, the division title up for grabs was the weakest division of the 3. If the wildcard had been in play for either of these two pairs of teams, it would have sapped all the excitement out of it. The 1973 NL East was pretty weak too, I know. But it was FIRST PLACE on the line and nothing else. What made those two tiebreaker games so dramatic and exciting is that the Twins and the Angels were done for the year afterwards because they lost. Meanwhile, the 1996 Dodgers got seeded anyway, even though they finished SECOND.
The 2nd wildcard has brought some of this back, and it makes me happy in a two-steps-backward-one-step-forward kind of way, but once again: both St. Louis and Pittsburgh are already locked in to the postseason, so it's not quite the same. And the winner of the one-game wildcard playoff will still be afforded an almost equal seeding in the postseason tournament. They'll have to sweat out that one-game playoff, yes, but then they get almost as many home games as any of the division winners. I know they will end up with a higher won-lost percentage than either New York or LA or SF (not by a lot, though).
But September 28, 2011 does not deserve to trump October 2nd, 1987. The earlier contest and all like it in the pre-wildcard era were far more dramatic than the day 2 wildcards were decided.