by Alex Langer
Baseball is designed to test your patience, to test your soul. The season is long. After the initial excitement of April and the first glimpses of how your team is faring, baseball slips into the endless days of summer, where five or six-game winning streaks are often followed up by three and four-game losing streaks. The summer months test baseball fans to their core. But its September now. There are fewer than thirty games to go. The pennant race is in full swing.
At the end of 162 games, consisting of at least 1,458 innings, two teams in each league will get the pleasure of their season coming down to a one-game playoff, the so-called Wild Card Playoff, now in its fifth year. After the marathon of the baseball season, designed to let talent and resilience win out, two teams will send exhausted pitchers to the mound for the chance to officially enter the playoffs. Currently there are seven teams in the American League and five in the National League that have a legitimate shot at making one of those two wild card spots. The Seattle Mariners, who have missed out on the playoffs for over half of my life, are one of those teams, though their recent play leaves little in the way of optimism. Let’s say for the sake of argument, however, that they manage to sneak in to the second of the two Wild Card spots, and play the Boston Red Sox in a one-game playoff. And lose. Did they truly make the playoffs? Can Mariner fans claim the drought is over?
Baseball, alone of the major American sports, has been late to the playoff frenzy. Baseball has always preferred a small and exclusive playoffs, compared to leagues such as the NBA. In baseball, twelve of the thirty teams, or forty percent, make the playoffs. In the NBA, sixteen out of thirty, over half, make it in. The “pennant” refers to the American or National League champions, not to division winners or even the victors of the World Series.
Until 1969 the only round of playoffs was the World Series. The American League and the National League champions, decided by whoever had the best record, each won the pennant and played a best-of-seven series against the other to determine the best of the best. For those of you who follow European football, think of baseball until 1969 in similar terms. Each league had eight teams (ten beginning in 1961) and the only winner was the best overall team. It was the pennant or bust. Teams had a ⅛ chance of winning any hardware that season. The World Series began much like the Super Bowl did, as a chance to determine league superiority in an era where teams from the AL never played teams from the NL. In that way, the rigors required to take the pennant, and the importance of the regular season in determining the victor, meant that the pennant was just as important as a World Series victory. It also served as the reason that the baseball season is longer by far than any other season. It eliminated much of the vagaries of luck and allowed for talent to have more opportunities to affect the game. After all, in a sport where the best player typically has four or five moments to affect the game, having a plethora of games is one way to ensure they have a marked impact on the season as a whole.
When the leagues expanded to twelve teams each in 1969, the cries of fans and (more importantly) owners of the difficulty in winning the pennant caused the first major change in the baseball playoffs. Each league was split into West and East, and the winners of each division played a best-of-seven series to win the pennant and have the honor of representing their league in the Fall Classic. However, this brought with it a new problem, one that should be familiar to most fans. What happened when one division was stronger than another? For instance, in 1993 the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves had the two best records in baseball, but because they both played in the NL West, only the Braves made the playoffs.
After further expansion to fifteen teams each, baseball undertook another change. The teams were split into three divisions of five teams each, and the Wild Card was introduced, allowing for the additional Divisional Series. This changed teams’ chances at some form of hardware from the original one-in-eight, and the one-in-ten of the 1960s, to one-in-five. Finally, as a consequence of more teams wanting chances at the playoffs, the MLB introduced the second Wild Card spot, adding one more playoff spot while devaluing the efforts of the first Wild Card winner. Whereas before, the Wild Card was a recognition of being the best team to not win a division, and the reward was a best-of-five series against a division winner, now the Wild Card playoff is the equivalence of the First Four in the NCAA Basketball tournament. 162 games of struggle leads to a single-game playoff for the right to truly enter the playoffs in the public consciousness. The results of this means that more teams have a chance at basking in the glory of the playoffs while diluting the effects of the longest regular season in sports. It adds more variance and more opportunities for upsets, which in turn leads, theoretically, to a more exciting game. After all, sports are primarily entertainment.
The shorter a game or season is, the more chance for variance there is, and less of a chance for talent to separate itself from the field. To test this, simply take a random sixteen-game slice of the baseball season and compare it to a full NFL season. Or, take an eight-minute section of any basketball game and compare it to the full game. Players get hot. Teams get hot. In a short enough season, a stretch of lucky or inspired play can lead a team to victory. In a five or seven game series, a so-called “lesser” team can triumph over a more talented team. The 162 game schedule is designed to cancel that out, to ensure that any improbable hot streaks are brought crashing to earth under the force of so many games. By opening up the playoffs to more and more teams, Major League Baseball is attempting to ameliorate some of those effects and let chance take a larger hold on the game. While the MLB playoffs are still the most exclusive of the four major American sports, they have become significantly more inclusive than they were historically.
As a partisan fan, I say give me more teams, more opportunities, more insanity. If they let all the teams in and seed them based on record, at least the Mariners will make the playoffs. That seems to be my only hope for the near future. But as a fan of the game, of the pennant, and of what the 162-game marathon of a season was designed to do, I say that the Wild Card game is a sham, and finding a way to eliminate that game and even the divisional series would do a lot to restoring interest in the greatest regular season in American professional sports.
 As of September 3rd. I looked at teams within four games, which would mean those teams would have to make up one game per week on the leaders to make the playoffs, an entirely reasonable number.
 Fifteen years and counting…
 Six losses out of their last eight, to be exact.
 Sidebar: Imagine modern baseball played the same way as the English Premier League-No salary cap, no draft, and champion, chosen at the end of the season as the team with the best overall record. Imagine how the owners of the Athletics or Marlins would complain. That was what baseball was like prior to 1969. Can you imagine knowing that you had to beat the Yankees or the Dodgers or the Red Sox every year to have any success?
 Or one-in-four, as was the case for the AL West until 2012.