Rubbernecking the Wild Card Race

One month ago we knew exactly who was going to make the playoffs, and media pundits were clearly irritated about it. Give us an extra playoff spot, they cried, this is too boring. Or, to put it another way, “Waaaah, Mommy turned off my TV”[sobs].

Plans for realignment of the divisions and season were accidentally-on-purpose leaked earlier this season to gauge public opinion, and one of the big selling points was that an extra wild card spot would make the season more “interesting”, albeit not as fair, as it reduces the relevance of the 162 regular season games. But to heck with fair, just keep an eye on those TV ratings.

Back then, the Phillies, Brewers and Diamondbacks were running away with their respective divisions in the NL, and Atlanta had a 7 game lead in the Wild Card race. In the AL, Detroit (5 games) and Texas (3.5 games) had healthy leads, and Boston held a 1.5 game lead over the Yankees, with both teams well ahead of the chasing pack in the Wild Card standings.

However much that scenario may have bugged ESPN, it was going to work out nicely for my column. With a copy deadline of Wednesday, this column will be submitted several hours before the start of the crucial games on the last day of the regular season. I should be writing a playoff preview, as the Wild Card races should have been wrapped up a week ago.

Except whatever I said would probably have been wrong because going into the last game, both Wild Card races are locked in a tie, and it has taken flameouts of epic proportions in September to get us there. In the last month, prohibitive NL Wild Card favourite Atlanta has a record of 10 wins and 17 losses, while Boston has managed to out-collapse them with 8 wins and 19 losses. In the month of September, Boston owns Major League Baseball’s worst team ERA, conceding an average of 5.9 runs per game, while Atlanta’s culprit has been their offense, which has outscored only the San Diego whiffleballers…I mean Padres.

Waiting in the wings, hoping for the clinching of what would be a miracle, are the St Louis Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Rays, neither of whom looked to be factors a month ago, but who now get to live that wonderful sporting oxymoron: “controlling their own destiny”. If the National or American League Wild Card candidates still have identical records after tonight’s regular season denouement, they go into a one-game playoff on Thursday, where the winners gets to dream another day and the loser goes home to a nightmare: golf.

So the next 36 hours could be (will have been by the time you read this) compulsive viewing in a morbidly curious, sporting equivalent of rubbernecking kind of way (slowing down to look at a car crash). Eight years ago, before their 2004 World Series win, erstwhile long-time failures Boston would have had the support of everyone outside New York, but with their fans’ seamless transition from lovable losers to…well, unlovable unlosers, few things would make for greater sporting theatre than for the Red Sox to crash tonight with another loss against the keen-but-useless Orioles.

The Atlanta Braves on the other hand, have long since given up their mantle as the beasts of the NL East and they don’t have vast armies of obnoxious fans ready to gloat over everyone else, mainly because they don’t have that many real fans. I could hardly believe it watching some of the game in Atlanta last night against the Phillies, seeing the swathes of empty seats. If the good folks of Atlanta can’t get excited about their team when it’s this close to only a second trip to the postseason in six years…well… The players are pro’s but it has to be dispiriting to know that your own city has far more interest in the NFL’s week 4 than the baseball playoffs.

Playoff preview? Nah, I’m too busy limbering up for an evening of rubbernecking.

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