Baseball's wild thing: Race is on to be No. 2

April 03, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

With the first pitch of the baseball season tonight, we officially pass through the gates of Wild Card World, the zany, new baseball theme park dreamed up by the owners, who, of course, have only your interests at heart with their new six-division alignment and expanded playoffs.

This is just the first step in the hockey-ization of baseball, which should ultimately lead to a dozen playoff qualifiers and, as the NHL once favored, divisions named after famous players and figures. For instance, the AL East could be renamed the Mel Ott Division. (Leading to the phrase, "They got the Ott!" becoming a baseball landmark much like "The Giants win the pennant!")

Of course, the owners are interested only in giving the fans more bang for their buck with more division races and playoff games. The owners care a lot about the fans. OK, maybe they also care a little about the extra millions in TV revenue.

Anyway, the opening of Wild Card World amounts to a baseball revolution. Consider the questions we would normally be asking as the season opens.

Q: Do the Orioles have enough pitching finally to beat the hated Citos in the AL East?

Old answer: Maybe, maybe not.

Wild Card World answer: Who cares if the Orioles beat the Blue Jays? It doesn't matter! To make the playoffs, they just need to beat out the Mariners, Indians and other wild-card contenders.

Q: How will the Orioles feel if the hated Citos win the division again?

Old answer: They'll probably be pretty depressed as they drive around in their Ferraris, sit in their Jacuzzis and watch the playoffs.

Wild Card World answer: They'll be thrilled! They get another shot at the Jays in the league championship series (provided they are the wild-card team and both they and the Jays win their first-round series).

Yes, Wild Card World is going to make baseball a funkier place than it used to be. Now, instead of wondering whether Lee Smith will hold up as the Orioles' closer, we have more important questions to ask. For instance, what is the wild-card tiebreaker procedure? Run differential? Number of sacrifice bunts in interdivision games? A panel of judges voting on artistic impression?

(Can you imagine asking Mickey Mantle in 1956 if he understood the wild-card tiebreaker procedure? He would have punched you in the nose.)

The answer, by the way, is that, in a rare, unexplainable moment of dedication to tradition, the lords of Wild Card World have decided that the wild-card tiebreaker procedure will be a one-game playoff. Of course, if a corporate sponsor comes along with a better idea . . .

Anyway, a year ago, we had the Last Great Pennant Race, with the Giants and Braves each winning more than 100 games and taking the NL West race down to the last Sunday. This year, to celebrate the opening of Wild Card World, we should have the First Great Irrelevant Pennant Race, with the Orioles and Blue Jays slugging it out into October in a hit-heavy confrontation that means absolutely nothing.

Both teams figure to make the playoffs, with the White Sox the clear chalk in the AL Central, or Black and Blue division, and the four-team AL West so weak. (The Rangers should win the latter, which says it all.) Going on the assumption that the Jays and Orioles are better than the Yankees and Red Sox -- the Sox don't have enough hitting and too many Yankees played over their heads in '93 -- the loser of the Orioles-Jays "race" looks like a postseason lock.

The guess here is that the Jays will outlast the Orioles during the season because the Orioles bullpen will wear out, but then, improbably, the hungrier, fourth-seeded Orioles will come back to upset the Jays in the championship series. (Can you imagine telling Casey Stengel he was seeded fourth in the playoffs?)

At the World Series, permanent acting commissioner Bud Selig will point to the presence of the wild-card Orioles and say, "Ain't this ol' game grand?" Then the Birds will go out and lose to the Giants, who will have eliminated the wild-card Phillies in the first round, then upset the Braves in the NL Championship Series.

(Warning: A year ago this column erred in predicting that the Orioles would win the AL East. However, a team of physicians has since determined that this mistake was caused by overexposure to the harmful "train wreck" rays let off by former Oriole Glenn Davis. This year's predictions should be more accurate. Hopefully.)

Of course, regardless of what happens on the field this year, the best news of all for Orioles fans is that their ballclub finally is reinvesting some of the Camden Yards profits in talent instead of pocketing it and using it for lawyers fees or whatever.

Even if the club doesn't win the division, at least a good-faith effort has been made to put the best possible contender on the field.

And even if the club doesn't win the division, there's always the fallback credo of Wild Card World: "We're No. 2! (And Darn Happy About it!)"

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