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Angels' descent gives rise to a wild, wild-card race


Bob Costas, calling Bob Costas. Mr. Tradition. Mr. Anti-Wild-Card. Mr. Lord Protector of Baseball.

Never be another pennant race, eh, Bob?

Well, never sure got here quick.

That isn't just a pennant race in the AL West, it's one of the greatest collapses in major-league history.

No one is talking about it, because no one stays up late enough for the West Coast scores, and no one wants to admit baseball is alive.

There's plenty to hate about the game -- the lack of a labor agreement, the regionalized postseason TV package, the predetermined home-field advantage.

But lay off the three-division setup.

Leave the wild card alone.

Yes, the California Angels' crash would be just as dramatic and even more perilous under the old setup, with no wild-card safety net.

But it's still awfully meaningful under the new setup, even though naysayers such as Costas predicted that the sky would fall and that there'd never be another meaningful September again.

Tell it to the Mariners, who might have just saved baseball in Seattle by going from 12 1/2 games out on Aug. 20 to a half-game out entering last night's play.

Or tell it to the Angels, who could tie the 1973 Chicago Cubs for the fourth-biggest collapse in history, and pull off the most pronounced late-season choke of all time.

Indeed, Gene Mauch might be off the hook.

Oh, the Angels won't blow a 6 1/2 -game lead with 12 to play, like Mauch's 1964 Phillies. But no team has ever lost this large a lead this late.

The 1978 Red Sox? Their biggest lead (14 games) came on July 17. The Angels had nearly as comfortable a margin over Seattle a month later.

The 1951 Dodgers? That's comparable, but the Mariners began their charge even later than the New York Giants. The Dodgers led by 13 1/2 games with 51 to play. The Angels led Texas by 9 1/2 and Seattle by 12 1/2 with 38 left.

Lee Smith, meet Ralph Branca.

Only five teams in major-league history have overcome deficits of 11 1/2 games or more. The Mariners would be the sixth, and the wild card might not cushion the Angels' fall.

That's where baseball is lucky -- luckier than it deserves.

If not for the threat posed by the Yankees and Royals, there'd be no incentive for Seattle to overtake California.

In fact, the Mariners (or Angels) would be better off finishing second, because the division champion would face Cleveland.

This is the dumbest part about the playoff format -- that the four qualifiers in each league aren't seeded according to record.

This season, the AL East and AL West champions get home-field advantage. The Indians could finish with the highest winning percentage of any team in 41 years, but it won't matter.

Obviously, this needs to be addressed. And the game needs a TV contract in which every postseason game is broadcast to every part of the country.

Want to see the Reds? The Braves? The other first-round AL series? Forget it. Every playoff game will start at the same time, until Game 6 of the league championship series.

Viewers in each market will see one game, and one game only. So, those in Baltimore could miss the entire National League playoffs, and half of the American League's first round.

Get a labor agreement, then maybe the networks will come around. Get a labor agreement, then maybe the fans will rally to the sport again.

The Yankees and Royals are serious wild-card contenders, yet they're drawing crowds only in the 12,000-15,000 range. Fans are indifferent, not so much to the wild card, but to the game.

The truth is, they'll get used to the wild card, just as they got used to divisional play in 1969. Both leagues are producing exciting finishes. And the extra playoff round will only add to the fun.

Was the old format so much better?

Heck, was it even better at all?

Every division would have been decided by now, except the AL West. The Reds and Red Sox wouldn't be going to the postseason. And the NL East leader would be Philadelphia, at 66-68.

Ah, but tradition would have been preserved.

A glorious tradition, dating back all of 26 years.

This way, you get the Reds, you get the Red Sox and you probably get the expansion Rockies. You get two wild-card winners that figure to finish at least 10 games over .500.

You want to rip baseball, rip baseball. Rip the labor negotiators. Rip the stupid playoff format. Rip the regionalized TV coverage. But don't rip just because it's fashionable. Don't rip the wild card.

Calling Bob Costas, and all other naysayers.

Enough whining already.

Can we enjoy September now?

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