Even losers can win in Wild Card World

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOSTON -- Is Wild Card World a great place or what?

On Thursday night, the Orioles gave up four home runs, took an 11-1 knock on the head, heard their manager accuse them of "going through the motions" -- and still gained a half-game in the wild card standings because the Yankees lost twice. So it was a good night!

Last night, the Orioles went through the motions, went into extra innings with the Red Sox and lost again. No matter. They've gained a ton of ground in this series. They were 10 out (of first) when it started and now they're four out (of the wild card spot). Like magic!

Welcome to life in Wild Card World. The Orioles are 4-10 since the Bobby Bonilla trade, can't buy a clutch hit on their biggest road trip of the season and have spent only three days over .500 all season -- but you can't laugh when they say they're contenders, because they are.

"We're right in the middle of it," first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said.

So, for all those still investing hope in the idea of this uninspiring club making the playoffs, the time has come to do something unpleasant: Get down on your knees, put your hands together in prayer and give thanks to the baseball gods for Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf, the fathers of Wild Card World.

I know, you'd rather take a 40-ouncer to their heads. You'd rather bring back Sid Fernandez. You'd rather do anything than offer pTC thanks for Bud and Jerry, the killjoys who deep-sixed the World Series.

Sorry. If you're going to enjoy Wild Card World -- and that's the only fun the Orioles have left this season -- you must give credit to the men responsible for it.

OK, repeat after me: Thank you, baseball gods, for the Grinches who are ruining baseball but keeping the Orioles in the postseason hunt even though they're sleepwalking through August. Amen.

There. Did that hurt so bad?

Yeah, I thought it might.

But it's worth the hurt, isn't it, to experience the thrill of having your team alive in Wild Card World?

OK, so maybe it isn't so thrilling yet.

"It's actually kind of sad," Palmeiro said. "We aren't playing well enough to deserve to be called a contender. There's no way you can say that. But we didn't set up this system. We're just playing. The goal is to make the playoffs. And we're still in the race."

Not that that is an accomplishment. Every team but the Twins, baseball's garage sale kings, is still contending for the AL wild-card spot. The Oakland Athletics, nine games under .500, are still a factor. The Orioles? You may think they've ruined their ,, season, but a hot streak puts them right there. That's the beauty of Wild Card World. Everything is relative. Losses don't hurt because everyone loses a lot. Wins are significant because they're rare.

"Hey, we don't care," Orioles outfielder Kevin Bass said. "It's just another chance for us to make the playoffs, which is what we play for. And once you're in the playoffs, if you get hot, anything can happen. I don't see any downside to it. The players love it. And the fans will, too."

We'll see about that. Baltimore fans would come to Camden Yards if the Orioles were playing in the International League -- insert your own joke here -- but it's not clear fans across baseball will come out to cheer paper contenders residing 20 games south of the Indians.

"I don't think people are thinking about it much," Palmeiro said.

Of course, Selig, Reinsdorf and the other owners didn't care how it would play when they instituted the plan several years ago. They did it for one reason only: so they could add an extra round of playoffs and make more money off TV.

They didn't care that there would never be another great pennant race, or that the postseason would no longer be reserved for teams that had actually won something during the season, or that a whole generation of fans would probably begin referring to the World Series as "the last round of the playoffs." They just saw dollars, and Wild Card World was born.

The owners are getting what they deserve in the American League, where a collection of poor to average teams are staggering around, bumping into each other and showing the baseball world that there can, indeed, be a difference between a contending team and a quality team. But Wild Card World is here to stay, so we should get used to it.

"I look at it like this," Orioles manager Phil Regan said before last night's game. "I went to sleep upset Thursday night, and I woke up this morning a half-game closer to the playoffs. So I guess I should go to sleep more often."

Hey, that's the perfect advertising pitch for Wild Card World: You Should Go To Sleep More Often.

Agreed?

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