King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Horror! Embarrassment! Ignominy! A losing baseball team might win a division! Wait: That's a good thing.

By Salon Staff
August 23, 2005 11:00PM (UTC)
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The San Diego Padres lost again Monday night, something they do an awful lot for a team in first place. At 61-63, the Padres lead the National League West by four games over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

O, the pain! This is terrible! No major league team has ever climbed out of bed as late in a non-strike year as Aug. 23 and found themselves in first place with a losing record. It's the end of civilization as we know it.


Actually, I happen to think the Padres leading the West with a losing record is a great thing, but I seem to be the only one.

"If any team, division winner or wild card, were to finish the season with a losing record but get hot in the postseason and win the World Series," wrote Murray Chass in the New York Times earlier this month, "it would be embarrassing for baseball."

Chass went so far as to suggest that the 1994 strike, which wiped out the last third of the season plus the playoffs and World Series, wasn't all bad because it kept the Texas Rangers, 52-62 and leading the A.L. West at the time the players went out, from winning the division.


Writing on, the company organ, Barry M. Bloom proclaimed it "baseball heresy" to say so but forced himself to admit that 80 wins -- one below the .500 mark -- will win the West.

"Since the wild card, the three-division format and the three-tiered playoff system in each league were instituted in time for the 1994 season," Bloom wrote, "the greatest nightmare of traditional fans has been some team with a losing record winning it all."

Bloom later mentioned that "the horror of a team going to the postseason with a sub.-500 record first reared its ugly head" when the leagues were split into divisions in 1969.


Nightmares! The horror!

"This years NL West division race has all fans crying foul," wrote Adam Dembowitz on his Baseball Universe blog. "Baseballs playoff policy has issues that must be fixed ... It simply is not fair to the teams shut out when they have a far better record than one of the other division winners."


Blogger Martin Brady hopes that whoever wins the West loses quickly in the playoffs. "There's nothing worse than clearcut mediocrity getting lucky in the postseason," he wrote.

And so on.

I can think of a lot of things worse than clearcut medocrity getting lucky in the postseason. In fact, "clearcut mediocrity getting lucky in the postseason" is about as concise a description as I've ever heard of the appeal of the NCAA men's basketball Tournament, which is America's most entertaining sporting event.


If it's an embarrassment and a horror for a losing team to make the playoffs in baseball, why isn't it an embarrassment and a horror in pro basketball or hockey, where losing teams routinely make the playoffs, which include 16 teams rather than baseball's eight?

Is it going to be some kind of tragedy when one of the eight four-team divisions in the NFL is inevitably won by a team with a 7-9 record?

No, just baseball. It's nonsense.


As Bloom points out on, once you divide a league into divisions, you're going to have the possibility of the good teams being distributed unevenly and a bad team making the postseason by winning a weak division.

It hasn't happened yet, but the 1973 New York Mets won the N.L. East with an 82-79 record, half a game better than the Houston Astros, who finished fourth in the West, 17 games out. The Mets beat the Cincinnati Reds to win the pennant and played in the World Series without civilization ending, though hair styles didn't improve for quite a while.

The 1987 Minnesota Twins won the World Series after finishing atop the A.L. West at 85-77, a record that would have earned them fifth place in the East. Eighteen years later, the birds still sing and the sun still rises every day, not that you'd know that sitting in the stands at a Twins game.

I've said my piece about how the wild card has robbed baseball of its finest asset, the great pennant race, which I define as the two best teams in the league battling for one playoff spot, because elimination for the loser is the crucial ingredient for stretch-run excitement.


But it's been a dozen years now and I'm a big boy, so I live with that and hope for the next best thing, the best possible thing, which is the second- and third-best teams in the league battling for one playoff spot. If most of the bad teams in a league are all trapped in one sad-sack division, as is the case in the N.L. West this year, it makes it more likely that an exciting race will develop in the other two divisions.

As it happens, because the Central Division-leading St. Louis Cardinals are so far ahead of the league and most of the other top teams are in the East, we're not going to have a race between the second- and third-best team for one playoff spot. The third-best team will win the wild card.

But the Eastern Division has four winning teams within six and a half games of the Atlanta Braves, and those four are all within two and a half games of the Astros in the wild-card race. So there are better races going on than if the Padres and Diamondbacks were both 15 games better and the mediocrity was spread more evenly throughout the league.

And if the Padres win the West with a losing record and then get hot in the postseason -- they went 24-6 at one point this spring, so they're capable -- it's going to be a heck of a Cinderella story.


I suppose you could argue that it would make a mockery of the season for a losing team to win the World Series, but did Villanova make a mockery of the 1985 college basketball season? No, it provided one of the signature upset runs of the decade.

Will it be painful for the five or six teams with better records than the Padres to sit at home and watch them play in October? Sure. But them's the breaks.

One of the justifications for the wild-card system was that it would prevent a repeat of the "unfairness" of 1993. That year, the San Francisco Giants won 103 games but missed the playoffs because the Braves won the West with 104 wins and only division winners advanced. The Giants had to watch the Philadelphia Phillies, with 97 wins, in the playoffs.

You can't prevent such unfairness unless you just put the top teams in the playoffs, or expand the tournament beyond all reason, the way the NHL and NBA do. But putting the top four teams in each league in the playoffs means the best possible stretch race would be between the fourth- and fifth-best teams, a pair of slightly above-average clubs. No thanks.


Someday, baseball will expand again and will follow football's model of four four-team divisions in each league. I hope it does away with the wild card at that point and limits the playoffs to division winners. We'd have better races then.

In the meantime, the Padres are lousy and they're probably going to win the West. We'll survive. It'll be OK.

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I was joking, people [PERMALINK]

My in box tells me it wasn't clear to everyone Monday that when I mentioned spending my two-week absence from this column begging for a raise outside my boss's window, I was joking.

I appreciate your support, folks, but Salon has been good to me. A steady job and a couple extra potatoes, that's all I want.

I took two weeks off to hang out with my new daughter, Daisy. She hasn't decided yet whether she'll join her big brother in the coin-flipping business when the NFL season starts, but at the moment she's more than earning her keep by being cute.

Previous column: A primer for NFL holdouts

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