La Russa loves one-game wild cards

Two teams are going to wonder what hit them Friday night, wonder how they qualified for the postseason over 162 games and then were eliminated in one.

Well, all those players who already are questioning the new single-elimination, wild-card format should heed the advice of former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.

“Embrace it. I would just embrace it,” said La Russa, one of 14 members of Commissioner Bud Selig’s Special Committee for On-Field Matters, which recommended the change.

“It’s like Game 7. If you get a chance to play a Game 7, a one-game, play-in, that’s the most fun you can have. Just participating in that game ends up being one of the best experiences of your professional life.”

The difference, of course, is that the wild-card games will not mark the end of a season, or even a series. Instead, they are the kickoff to the postseason, and for the losers of the Cardinals-Braves and Orioles-Rangers games, the playoffs will be over before the other six teams even get started.

The Braves’ Chipper Jones, one of the game’s leading spokesmen, already has ripped the concept, calling it, “stupid” in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Rangers manager Ron Washington offered the view of many in uniform Thursday when he told reporters, “I’d rather this round be a best-of-three.”

Truth be told?

Selig wanted a best-of-three, too.

“Then we started talking about it on the committee. The vote was 14-0, including all four managers,” Selig said, referring to the retired La Russa and Joe Torre, plus the Tigers’ Jim Leyland and Angels’ Mike Scioscia. “They wanted one and out. Everyone wanted one and out, including the TV networks.

“We’ve got a lot of games to play. We’re trying to get done in October. The world isn’t perfect. If we keep adding games on, we’ll be playing until Thanksgiving. Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it, too. You can’t do that.”

La Russa also points to another problem: Making the wild-card round a best-of-three would penalize the division champions, forcing them to wait nearly a week between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs.

While the one-game elimination won’t always be fair – the Braves, after winning 94 games during the regular season, could get knocked out by a Cardinals team that won 88 – the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

La Russa said that the sport, by granting division winners byes into the best-of-five division series, already has accomplished its No. 1 goal – restoring the importance of division titles. As proof, La Russa points out how teams “played their butts off” trying to finish first, specifically mentioning the Orioles and Yankees in the AL East and the Athletics and Rangers in the AL West.

Actually, those teams were so closely bunched, they also would have played their butts off under the previous system, with virtually the same outcome. The Yankees and Athletics would have won division titles, and the Orioles and Rangers – voila! – would have met in a one-game playoff for the wild card.

As it turned out, the addition of the second wild card allowed all four teams to qualify, and the drama in the National League was rather minimal. Still, as one baseball official put it: “The incentives drove people to places they might not have gotten to otherwise.” The Phillies, Brewers, Dodgers, Angels and Rays were among the teams that kept pushing for the second wild card. And La Russa is right – teams at the top tried harder.

“I think you saw it play out perfectly,” the Cardinals’ Lance Berkman said. “I remember when I was with the Yankees in 2010. Our attitude was like, ‘It doesn’t matter if we win the division or the wild card.’ We knew we had a playoff spot locked up. Obviously, you always want to win the division. But there was no urgency to win the division. Now, there is.”

The problem, in the eyes of some, is that a one-game elimination is unduly harsh, particularly for two of the leading survivors of the 162-game grind. Baseball’s retort is: “You don’t like it? Win your division.” La Russa goes even further, saying with a hint of sarcasm: “If it’s too much of a problem, pass it to the next team.”

The system will be fairer next season after the Astros move to the AL, creating three five-team divisions in each league and giving every club the same mathematical chance of reaching the postseason. But a low-revenue team such as the Rays will continue to be at a disadvantage, playing an unbalanced schedule in a highly competitive division. When such a team overcomes the odds to reach the postseason, it’s cruel and unusual punishment to end its stay after only one game.

Chipper Jones said: “Anything can happen in one game – a blown call by an umpire, a bad day at the office,” adding that a best-of-three offers “some sort of leeway.” That’s Selig’s old argument; it’s just not practical. In the end, the conditions are the same for both clubs. The question becomes: How are you going to compete?

La Russa, naturally, has an idea:

“This is what I would say to my team: ‘We started the season, we were trying to win the division. Now, we are one of the 10 teams that are alive. Twenty have been eliminated. Embrace the moment. Take our best shot. See what happens. And next year, play a little better, win the division.’”

La Russa, of course, also would look forward to the game as a manager’s delight. In his first three postseasons with the A’s, he never managed in a Game 7. He would ask Tom Kelly, who managed the Twins to seven-game World Series triumphs in 1987 and ’91, and Leyland, who did the same with the Marlins in ’97, what it was like. Later, after joining the Cardinals, La Russa won three such games – in the 2004 NLCS, the ’06 NLCS and the ’11 World Series.

For someone with La Russa’s competitive spirit, a one-game elimination is nirvana. The manager and coaches do not need to worry about creating urgency; the circumstances create urgency. The players are in an all-out, all-or-nothing position. They either respond, or their seasons end.

“You’re getting me fired up just talking about it,” La Russa said.

Four teams should be just as fired up Friday.

Time to embrace the challenge.