October 31, 2002

Add the Wild Card to Baseball's Woes

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I think we can chalk up the utter failure of this year’s World Series to attract fans to the 1995 division jumble and implementation of the wild card. As you probably know, this was the first Series to ever feature a pair of teams that were issued free passes to extend their seasons without winning their respective divisions.

Some have argued that the new regular season format really brought fans back to baseball after the 1994 strike, that it gave life to teams that never seemed to surpass their division leaders year after year but still finished September with outstanding records. It increased competitiveness. It increased fan interest. And the most ridiculous statement of all: it saved baseball.

(O.K., so it did some of the above things, like actually make teams try to win at the end of the season when they had a shot at winning the wild card but not their division).

If the wild card was supposed to be the magic elixir, the cure-all, and the saving grace, why on earth did the Series experience its lowest ratings ever?

Because only one state was involved in the festivities. Because two teams who don’t have a strong fan base outside of their respective cities participated. And because no one in the 50 states, except the Golden one, gives a monkey’s paw about the outcome.

The ratings really went up in flames for Fox, the network that owns the postseason rights. Since so few households tuned in, Fox is actually going to have to give free ad time to some of its advertisers.

Fox Sports Chairman David Hill attributed the lack of attention to many factors but honed in on the suspense and aggravation surrounding the almost-strike in the regular season.

“Once again, baseball managed to turn off its loyal fans,” Hill said prior to Game 6 of the Series. “I hoped it would pick up when we got to the postseason. It certainly hasn’t been what I hoped it would be.”

I could go into the statistics from the Nielsen ratings that further show just how little the Central and Eastern time zones, in which 80 percent of the population resides, cared for the Series. To summarize, not much.

Then should baseball eliminate the wild card? Probably not. It’s not that likely that the two wild-card teams will face each other in the World Series, let alone two teams from the same state. Admittedly, it gives more teams a shot at reaching the postseason and has the potential to draw more fans for that reason.

It is just unfortunate that so much of the country would be alienated from something so special as the Series. The national pastime has suffered some crippling blows over the past decade and the Giants-Angels matchup only furthered that damage. Not that the public should determine who gets to the World Series, but if the wild card had not been instituted, the Angels would not be receiving rings.

I’m not really sure how baseball is going to continue down the path it’s headed with higher salaries and lower attendances, but something drastic has to be changed. If a seven-game series featuring Barry Bonds, five games that ended with the tying or winning run on base, and four games with come-from-behind wins is not enough to get fans to watch, baseball is obviously in trouble.

If not the wild card, then what is wrong with baseball and how do we fix it?

I have had numerous arguments with my roommate about a salary cap and revenue sharing and if they would actually help teams like the Devil Rays, Expos, Royals, and Marlins (I’m not including poor teams with high payrolls like the Rangers because the fact that they suck is due to idiotic management more than lack of monetary fan support).

The idea with the cap and sharing is that, like in other professional leagues, it will give less successful teams a better chance at making it through to the postseason because they will have more money to buy better players. At the same time, teams like the Yankees will have to cut their payrolls, give some of their income to other lesser teams, won’t be able to afford as many big names, will downsize, become less competitive and lose. It is not that difficult to understand.

Being from a city that has won the most division titles in a row ever, I am against this plan. Yes, I have enjoyed victory since 1991, however, I know that the Braves’ time at the top is coming to an end. The name just does not strike fear into the bats and gloves of other teams as it used to.

The Braves are vulnerable and have become more so with each passing season. It may have won its division this year by a sizable margin, but Atlanta is in a terrible conference, admittedly. The pitching staff is growing older and may not even include Maddux and Glavine next season as the two have filed for free agency.

This scenario has played out countless numbers of times over baseball’s lifetime. Teams inevitably fluctuate between greatness and mediocrity. It will happen to the Yankees. It’s happening to the Braves.

Baseball does not need the salary cap and revenue sharing to speed up this process. It will happen on its own.

So that brings us back to the disastrous World Series. The Angels and Giants had no cross-country fans. A salary cap and revenue sharing are not going to help that. Neither will eliminating the wild card because, if anything, that would decrease the fan base.

What would help, however, is GETTING RID OF TEAMS.

My choices are the following: Expos, Marlins, Devil Rays, and Royals.

All have minuscule fan support, some even have fan resentment (Hello, sellout Marlins!), and many actually lost money last season.

If you remove these teams, fans in those cities will be forced to choose an out-of-towner to follow. Instead of saying they hate the team in their neighborhood, they will have to say they like a distant team if they want to be a baseball fan.

The bottom line for these teams, and I will use an example to illustrate, is if Montreal wanted the Expos to be there in 2003, why didn’t the fans pack the stadium for each game this season to show Selig that they didn’t want the team to go?

I suppose that we won’t get to ponder contraction until the end of the 2006 season, when the terms of the current labor contract expire, because that idea is shelved for now.

I just hope that by then we haven’t found any new cities that want baseball.

Archived article by Katherine Granish