Everybody knows the best words in sports are “Game 7.” In baseball, basketball or hockey, where the best team does not always win one particular game, the most exciting contest possible is one luck-and-valor-infused winner-take-all game. Such games are unpredictable, wonderfully yet viciously emotional, and wring the athletes dry. It’s can’t-miss. If it involves a favorite team, it may even be a never-forget-it sports moment.
For decades, no major sport has been able to find an authentic way to arrive regularly at such moments, a method that made them seem fair, not contrived. Baseball may have done it with its expanded 10-team playoff with four wild cards. The key was not Game 7, but “winner-take-all.”
Now in the format’s second year, MLB may have found a formula that brings out the best (and worst) in teams, creates amazing runs or collapses in September, and thus sets a perfect stage for the October playoffs.
In modern sports with 30- to 32-team leagues, the era of two conferences and one title game is as antique as the 1950s. But who would come up with a plot that was totally different, more profitable, yet felt honorable, not a gimmick?
Call it Bud Selig’s legacy. Some would rather pound their thumb with a hammer than grant praise to the commissioner who announced last week that he will indeed retire after next season. But the Perfect Postseason may be his jewel.
Selig has been wrong, or too timid, on major issues: labor relations, performance-enhancing drugs, baseball’s return to Washington. Issues and enemies expire of exhaustion at his feet. Why, the Nats-Orioles MASN dispute is a mere toddler in Bud years.
But fortune smiles on Bud. If Selig bought a lottery ticket, he would absent-mindedly leave it in his suit when he took it to the dry cleaners. The dry-cleaning store would burn down, but the winds from the fire would blow the ticket back to Bud’s house where he’d find it on his front porch with a handwritten note from God: “Bud, please don’t lose this ticket again.”
And the next day, he’d win the lottery.
This week is one of those lottery tickets for baseball fans. On Monday night, the Rays went to Texas for a one-game playoff for the last American League wild-card spot. How did the Rangers get there? They had to sweep all seven games of their last homestand. Win every night or else. They did.
“It’s been good and it’s been fun,” the Rangers’ Adrian Beltre synopsized.
On Tuesday night, the Reds will visit Pittsburgh, which has not played a postseason game, much less hosted one, in 21 years. In the most beautiful park east of San Francisco, the Pirates will try to prove it was worth all the effort they made to sweep the Reds in Cincinnati over the weekend to ensure this game would be played by their own win-parched fans.
Then, on Wednesday, for the third straight evening at about 8 p.m. Eastern time, baseball has another loser-goes-home game between Manager Terry Francona’s underdog Indians and the Tampa Bay Rays. How insanely hot is Cleveland? With 18 games to play, the Indians were six games behind the Tigers in the AL Central. Cleveland won its last 10 games and 16 of 18. The Tigers had to play .611 ball (11-7) just to win the Central by one game.
If these are the amuse-bouches, what in the world is for dinner?
On Thursday and Friday, the five-game NL and AL division series will begin. It’s possible that, for seven straight days, baseball will have two, sometimes three or even four playoff games on the same day.
Almost the whole sport thinks the four-wild-card format is better than the old system, more true to the traditional spirit that division winners deserve a major advantage and that wild cards should have to climb mountains to win world titles. From 1997 through 2011, 10 of 30 World Series teams were wild cards, and five of them won the title. Not fair! So, now, that play-in game cuts any wild card’s chance in half while also using its best available starting pitcher before the division series starts.
The NBA and NHL are cursed with 16-team playoffs designed to prop up attendance in leagues with ingrained problems: lack of any semblance of parity in the NBA and lack of interest in too many NHL towns. Even the NFL, which lets in 12 teams, has had 7-9 teams in the playoffs. (NFC East fans in New York, Washington and Philadelphia may currently approve.)
Yet all 11 MLB teams still alive Monday won 90 to 97 games. Any one of them is good enough to win the World Series. Yet four teams were sent home with credible 85-77 or 86-76 years. Every team that’s alive deserves it, and some of the dead kept their dignity.
Talented teams that slumbered too long were properly punished. Among preseason favorites, the Angels, defending champion Giants and Blue Jays finished a combined 30 games under .500 and the hot-shot Nats, despite a furious rally, finished four wins shy to the wild-card Reds.
What’s grabbed me is the extra energy in September. It simply feels like the new system tends to produce drama.
The fight for best record (and home-field edge through the league championship series) provided an extra dessert this year. The Dodgers, as hot as any team in history for 10 weeks in mid-season, looked like a lock. But a 12-15 September left L.A. with just 92 wins while the Cardinals (97) and Braves (96) wrestled till the last weekend for home field. In the AL, the Red Sox (97 wins) and Athletics (96) went to the wire.
No one set of fans had a sense of all the permutations. But you can bet that, in 15 of 30 cities, including Washington, there were fans with sheets of paper full of schedules and need-to-win charts with 10 games to play.
The best part of the baseball year is about to start. But the tension, the plot lines and the key characters have been building for weeks. That’s always been true in baseball, but now more so than ever. September has gotten better, and October, now the almost-perfect postseason, begins.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.