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Extra Wild Card Adds Man-Made Drama To MLB



It's almost October, which means baseball playoff time. So for the uninitiated, let's review how Major League Baseball recently changed who gets to go to the playoffs. As always, the top three spots in each league go to the best teams in the three divisions; best teams from East, West and Central. There's also a fourth slot - the wildcard slot.

And it used to go to the next best team after those three division winners. That changed last year. The two next best teams have to face off in a do-or-die game for that coveted wildcard slot. Are you still with me? The point of all of this is to create extra drama. NPR's Mike Pesca, drama critic, joins us now. Hi Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: And you may amortize farm equipment from the previous tax year. Little complicated, seems like.

MARTIN: It's that confusing. So just as the MLB planned, we're approaching the end of September, some serious wildcard drama. You say not so dramatic.

PESCA: No, I don't really say not so dramatic. I just object to the nature of the drama. Let me explain. Baseball's 162 games. There's a quality about it that could be called marathon-like. It could be called just plain old long. But anyway, the character of the game is one thing, where you have five different pitchers and the teams are different every fifth day.

So if you have a playoffs - in any sport - what the playoffs should do is pretty much mirror the nature of the sport. Now, I'm not saying baseball teams make the playoffs and are now asked to play kickball or engage in a spelling bee.

MARTIN: That would be exciting.

PESCA: But a one-game playoff, here's an analogy that's a little unfair but let's say a bunch of racers are asked to run a marathon. Then you group the top-five racers and you say, all right, two of you guys are now going to run 100-yard dash against each other and we'll decide who goes on. it's just not in keeping with the nature of the sport and it's a bit gussied up for TV ratings though. That doesn't surprise me at all.

MARTIN: You know, the gussying up for TV ratings, isn't that one of the biggest criticisms of baseball besides that whole steroid allegation thing, is that this game can be...

PESCA: Yeah, and the spitting and the chewing of tobacco and yeah.

MARTIN: The game can be tedious to people who are not religious baseball watchers. So what's wrong with, you know, juicing things up a little bit?

PESCA: I understand, right, right, from the ratings standpoint. No, I get that, but there is sort of an earned drama, the drama of a seventh game, the drama of a deciding game after teams have been playing each other. And there's this, you know, there's such a thing as manufactured drama. I'm looking at you, every reality show on the Bravo network.

And sometimes we will tune in to see who pulls whose hair extensions among the Real Housewives of Atlanta, but I know major - I'm going to watch these playoff games and definitely going to tune into the one-game playoffs. I'm much more likely to tune into a one-game playoff than I am the first game of the divisional series.

So I'll watch. My only point is, you know, it's not exactly fair and equitable.

MARTIN: OK. Real quick, who is likely to capture that wildcard?

PESCA: Yes. Actual teams. So the NL's pretty much set. There are three teams in the Central, one will win the Central, two will make the wildcard, maybe the Reds or Pirates. Right now it's the Rays in the AL followed by the Indians. They're in the driver's seat. But there are the Texas Rangers just one game out, knocking on the door. We got a week to go, so of those three teams, two will make it I would say.

MARTIN: I can't wait. It's so exciting. OK. Curve ball?

PESCA: Let's stick in the sport of baseball. And by the way, being, you know, rising and following the playoff race has very much tracked with who's been playing the Houston Astros, 'cause they're the worst team in baseball. And they're about to - well, I think and I hope they could set a record for the most team strikeouts in baseball history.

MARTIN: Oh, no. That's not a good record.

PESCA: Yes. Right. If they get 74 - I think it's pretty good. If they get 74 more strikeouts, they'll set the record. They have seven games to play. They've been averaging nine strikeouts a game, so they've just got to up that strikeout total a little. I know they could do it. Last game they had 20 strikeouts, but their strikeout king, Chris Carter, who unfortunately spells his first and last name with a C and not a K, Chris Carter had no strikeouts.

So if Chris Carter could start whiffing at the rate he's established and the rest of the guys could come along, they could be the most striking outingest team.

MARTIN: You can do it, Houston. NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.