My earliest memory of baseball’s postseason is nothing like what we see these days.
There were eight teams in each league, and you had to finish first in one to play beyond the end of the regular season.
The whole postseason was the World Series; two teams played seven DAY games, and that was it. No league championship series, no division series, and certainly no Wild Card games.
I remember missing some of the greatest moments back then:
Dusty Rhodes ruining Cleveland’s 111-win season with two home runs and two other run-scoring hits in a four-game sweep in 1954 . . .
Yogi leaping into Larsen’s arms after he struck out Brooklyn pinch hitter Dale Mitchell for the 27th straight out in 1956 . . .
Maz’s home run leading off the bottom of the ninth of Game Seven to break a 9-9 tie and beat the Yanks in 1960 . . .
Because I was in school when they happened.
Expansion forced change. So did television.
First came playoff series between the teams that finished atop each of two divisions in each league, winners advancing to the World Series.
Then the expanded leagues split into three divisions, and the team with the next-best record became the Wild Card qualifier. (The Rockies were the National League’s first.)
And now we have THREE Wild Card teams in each league, and three rounds of postseason playoffs—just to determine the World Series participants. More games for TV, more fun for fans.
As a baseball traditionalist, I miss the immediate drama of the regular-season champions of the American and National Leagues squaring off. But I must admit that, with almost twice as many teams as there were in the ‘50s, things had to change.
This year’s playoffs offer ample proof that the expanded playoffs add to the excitement: Three of the four teams to advance to the two League Championship Series—Philadelphia, Arizona and Texas—went into last weekend needing just four more wins to reach the World Series, ONLY BECAUSE they earned a chance to continue playing despite not winning their respective divisions.
(The three teams with the best regular-season records all were ousted in short order after first-round byes, because of the rust that developed from not playing right away, they say. Their complaints could lead to further change in MLB’s postseason.)
Here are some facts about the postseason since the advent of Wild Card teams:
Seven Wild Card qualifiers have won the World Series in the past 30 years, including the Marlins twice.
The World Series has pitted two Wild Card qualifiers twice in three decades: 2002, when Anaheim beat San Francisco in seven games, and 2014, when those Giants won their third Series in six years, edging Kansas City also in seven.
The Colorado Rockies have been a Wild Card qualifier five times—the most among all National League teams.
Every team in both leagues has been a Wild Card qualifier at least once.
If you want a sentimental favorite in this season’s league championship series, and by extension, the World Series, my vote goes to Rangers manager Bruce Bochy.
After three years in retirement, Bochy is back and trying to win a title with an American League team to complement three with the Giants in the NL. Only Sparky Anderson (Reds and Tigers) and Tony LaRussa (A’s and Cardinals) have won the Series from both leagues.
If you’re trying to decide which underdog to root for, I suggest you take a hard look at the Arizona Diamondbacks (as distasteful as that may be if you’re a Rockies fan). Two years ago, Arizona lost 110 games. (Rockies fans take note.) Last season, they were slightly better (74-88).
Bochy’s Rangers are a candidate, too. The year Arizona lost 110, Texas lost 102 (albeit without Bochy at the helm). And the Rangers have never won the World Series.
Whatever your choice, we won’t be watching New York against Brooklyn, in the daylight, on a black-and-white TV, when the 2023 World Series commences a week from tomorrow.
But the Wild Card has brought another kind of excitement to baseball.
That 8-5-3 double play that ended Game Two between the Phillies and the Braves is an equivalent of Rhodes, Larsen or Mazeroski for thrilling performance.
Maybe another memory will be made by whichever teams are in “the finals.”
Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at email@example.com.