Wild Card Blues

Despite going away from tradition, the addition of the wild card has brought much excitement to Major League Baseball over the past eight seasons. But with the MLB's current unbalanced schedule, teams in weak divisions have the advantage while others - such as the Seattle Mariners in the tough American League West - are at a disadvantage from the start of the season, says InsidethePark.com columnist Scott Smiles.

It would be fair to say that Bud Selig's tenure as commissioner of baseball has been far from easy going. He has been constantly criticized for the widening parity gap between the large and small market teams. Under his watch, baseball missed its first World Series in almost 100 years, had an All-Star Game end in a tie and, in recent years, has been bombarded with allegations of rampant steroid use among the players.

But for all of the disparagement that has been bestowed upon Selig, one positive thing about his reign is his active pursuit in trying to improve the game -maybe moreso than any commissioner in the history of baseball. He has brought baseball the wild card, inter-league play, realignment and, most recently, an All-Star Game that "counts."

The wild card might have been his biggest achievement as it has provided playoff aspirations to teams that have fallen behind in their divisional races. That has brought forth more excitement and enjoyment for the fans that would usually grow disinterested late in the season with their teams out of the race.

Mariners' fans can relate to that because in 1995 the wild card gave the team a reason to believe that they could make the playoffs even as the Angels mounted what was thought to be an insurmountable lead. Yet, despite all of the positives that the wild card has brought to baseball, it is still far from perfect. And the Mariners are one of the teams that suffer the most because of the imperfections.

The wild card is meant for the team with the best record in each league that is not a divisional champion. That means that each team is not only competing with others in their own respective divisions for the divisional title but also against every other team in the entire American or National League (depending what league they are in) for the wild card.

The unbalanced schedules that are currently implemented in baseball, however, have made the road to the wild card easier for some teams to obtain than others. That is because teams such as the Mariners have to play more games against the ultra-competitive American League West teams while teams the M's are competing against for the wild card - such as the Yankees and Red Sox - get more games against the bottom feeders of baseball.

This season the Mariners have to face each team in the West a total of 19 times. Those teams include the Oakland Athletics, which comprise some of the best talent in baseball on their roster. It always make for a tough series when you have to battle Oakland's Big Three of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson while trying to fend off the bats of 2002 MVP Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez.

The American League West also is home to the defending World Series champion Anaheim Angels. While the Angels have not been playing as well this season as they did last year, they still remain the same team that was good enough to win a World Series. And with a formidable rotation and numerous power hitters throughout their line-up, the Angels will always be a tough team to play.

In the cellar of the West are the Texas Rangers although they have to be the most talented last place team in all of baseball. While the Rangers have a pitching staff that a minor league team wouldn't envy, their offense is one of the most explosive in all of baseball, led by one of its top players, Alex Rodriguez. The line-up also boasts All-Star caliber hitters in Juan Gonazalez, Rafael Palmeiro, and up-and-comer Hank Blalock.

While the Yankees and Red Sox have to face each other more than any other team, they are also able to beat up on the likes of the Orioles and the Devil Rays. This gives them a clear advantage in the Wild Card race.

The disadvantage given to the Mariners could ultimately prove to be the deciding factor in their season. As it stands now, Oakland trails Seattle by only five games. And if the past three seasons are any indication, the A's are saving their best ball for the second half of the year.

If baseball is going to make the wild card a fair race between all of the teams it has to schedule an equal amount of games between all of the teams. While Mariner fans may have to miss out on games against close rivals, they will also get to see more games against teams such as the Yankees. And the Yankees remain a big draw every time that they visit Seattle, only playing at Safeco in one series this season.

The Mariners did have a slight advantage this season during inter-league play when they played the last-place San Diego Padres while the A's had to face the always dangerous San Francisco Giants. These disparities in inter-leauge matchups must stop in order for all of the playoff races to remain fair.

Organizing a balanced schedule may be a logistics nightmare for Major League Baseball. They may be afraid to schedule fewer games between teams that are considered heated rivals. But it is something that they must do in order to make the playoff races fair for all of the teams.

The wild card changed the landscape of baseball. It made teams across divisions competitive with one another. Baseball is different from the National Basketball Association in which more than half of the teams make the playoffs; there are only four playoff spots in each league. As long as the M's continue to play in a tough division, they'll be a step behind in the race for the wild card unless baseball changes its scheduling ways.

Scott Smiles is a life-long baseball fan and 2002 graduate of the University of Washington. He can be reached at scottjsmiles@hotmail.com.

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