In 2012, Major League Baseball introduced the polarizing Wild Card Game. This one-game playoff decides the fate of the the two best teams following the division winners in each league, much to the dismay of all who recognize the absurdity of a 163rd game deciding the outcome of a 162-game season. It is equivalent to a professor giving a one-question final exam in which a student can either get the question right and get an A, or get it wrong and fail the semester with no in-between option.
But whether it makes sense or not is now a moot point, because last week’s Wild Card games proved the “winner-takes-all” format is too fun to let go.
When Rob Manfred took over as MLB Commissioner in 2014, one of his main goals was to speed up the game's pace of play, which he believed would increase appeal to younger audiences. This has already led to changes in intentional walk procedure, between-innings clocks, and timed mound visits – noticeable but acceptable changes to all but the most extreme traditionalists. He’s made it clear that bigger changes are under consideration as well.
This year’s American League Wild Card game, played between the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins, lasted over four hours, a full hour longer than the average 2017 regular season game. And it was riveting from the very first pitch.
No two Wild Card teams have ever had a greater regular-season win differential than the Twins and Yankees, with the Yankees winning 91 games compared to the Twins’ 85. All prior Wild Card matchups featured a zero or one-game differential. Already combining the public distaste for the Wild Card game with MLB’s long-time obsession with the Yankees, the league may well have imploded if the Twins pulled out the win.
The Twins went up 3-0 in the top of the first inning, and chased starting pitcher Luis Severino after he recorded just one out. However, the Yankees quickly retaliated with three runs of their own, and went on to make it 4-3.
But the Twins knotted it back up at 4-4 in the third. Finally, they pulled away, leading 5-4, then a commanding 7-4 on none other than an Aaron Judge home run. They would score once more for good measure to win 8-4, in one of the most exciting baseball games possible.
This game had it all: it showcased character, had shock factor, and displayed the nuances of the game. Ultimately, it gave viewers a reason to watch for four hours.
Similarly, the nearly four-hour National League Wild Card contest between the Rockies and Diamondbacks game was as exciting as a game can be. The teams used a combined fourteen pitchers who gave up four home runs and an elusive triple by a relief pitcher, the energetic Archie Bradley. It was nothing short of epic, with the Diamondbacks prevailing 11-8 over their division foes.
In the opening days of the 2016 season, the Nationals’ phenom-turned-superstar Bryce Harper wore a hat that read, “MAKE BASEBALL FUN AGAIN,” in protest of the unwritten rules of the game that hampered his ability show his personality on the field, like the increasing sensitivity of opposing teams to bat-flipping and other eccentric displays of character.
It is not the pace of play that will appease Harper, or fans. It is more of what we saw last week.
It is how players react in the face of an entire season on the line; the emotions that come out when pressure it at its absolute highest. It is the thrill when the anticipation finally ends, and in one night, the course of the season is altered.
That thrill does not exist without 162 grueling, blissfully slow games in anticipation.
What’s unique to baseball compared to basketball or football is that there is no clock. Every play matters, every batter must take his turn, and there are no shortcuts. An insane, almost incomprehensibly counterintuitive Wild Card game is the perfect way for fans to get a breath of fresh air before settling in for the final month of the playoffs.
The Wild Card game makes baseball fun, and though in theory it is sacrilege, in practice, it might just be what saves the game.