Wild-Card Races Reshuffle Postseason
THROWING FANS A CURVE
THE box scores in newspaper sports sections are one of the last constants in a sports world turned upside down by player strikes, owner stubbornness, and fan rebellions. They are as much of a ''must read'' to voracious sports fans as op-ed pages are to political pundits. Of late, a new and unfamiliar chart has invaded this sacred realm: the wild-card standings. While often agreeing that an extended playoff format may generate new interest and revenues, baseball observers are divided about the new postseason derby. Some analysts say it will win back fans after last season's noxious labor dispute. Others argue that the complexity of wild-card races will simply befuddle the casual fan. Some share the sentiments of Murray Chass, a veteran baseball writer for the New York Times. ''I never like to see anyone but the first-place team play in the postseason,'' he says. ''But with no division races to watch [in the American League],'' because those division-titles are virtually sewn up, ''the wild-card race will keep fans of teams who would normally be out of the race coming to the ballpark.'' To Mark Newman, a senior editor and writer of The Sporting News, the advent of wild-card teams has only created confusion. ''It has become obvious that the average person has no idea who will play whom in the postseason,'' he says. ''It's like trying to figure out a National Football League playoff tie-breaker. I thought that was bad, but this is worse.'' Some view the complex formula used to determine the pairings and playing sites as illogical. It certainly does not sit well with many Cleveland fans: The Indians own the best record in the major leagues but will not even enjoy the home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. ''I think it's a travesty because we need every advantage we can get,'' says Doug Cameron, a long-suffering Indians fan. ''I really don't know how the playoff format works,'' Cameron says, ''but being a traditionalist, I think only those who win something should be allowed to keep playing in the playoffs. Now baseball is just like the National Basketball Association or National Hockey League.'' Each of those leagues qualifies 16 teams for the playoffs, a situation that dilutes the importance of the regular season to some. But to many baseball fans, the lengthy 162-game regular season (144 this year, with the strike-delayed opening) is the true determiner of merit. For years, two pennant winners met in the World Series. Then in 1969, baseball created divisions - two each in the American and National Leagues - and established league-championship series. This was resisted, too. ''There was the same sort of outcry concerning the divisional playoff in 1969,'' Newman recalls, ''but at least there you had chases for first place. Now you have races for second place, and they defeat the whole purpose of baseball.'' Each league was realigned last year into three divisions and a wild card was added. Because of the labor-management stalemate that wiped out the postseason, however, the new format was largely overlooked until now. Levin says the wild-card competition has already won converts, especially among fans of the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, and Colorado Rockies, teams that have never made the postseason but now are bidding to do so. For Colorado, the wild-card serves as a second chance in case the Rockies lose a tight National League West race. Most wild-card contenders, however, are trailing runaway division leaders such as Cleveland, the Boston Red Sox, the Atlanta Braves, and the Cincinnati Reds, all of which have either clinched division titles or enjoy virtually unassailable leads. To rise in the wild-card rankings, all a team needs to do is keep winning games - and hope that the teams close to them keep losing. So a season that otherwise would have lacked suspense has found some in wild-card contenders. These clubs are giving fans new reasons to root, root, root for the home team - and to check those wild-card standings.