(Eds: With AP Photos.)By TIM DAHLBERGAP Sports Columnist
There was something a bit artificial about it to begin with, and not just because the worst team in the National League playoffs became the first beneficiary of the expanded wild card.
The St. Louis Cardinals certainly celebrated as if it was real, even if they had to wait until they were off the field to go wild about their wild-card win. No sense antagonizing the fans in Atlanta any more, in case they still had a few more beer bottles in reserve.
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Baseball is not supposed to be decided in one game. Never was, no matter how much extra money it brings Bud Selig and his owners.
That a 94-win season can end because of a few ill-timed errors is hard enough to digest for Atlanta fans who kept the faith through a long season. That a call an umpire had no business making thwarted a possible comeback will make the offseason seem even longer.
Actually, left field umpire Sam Holbrook may have done everybody but Braves fans a favor by raising his arm and calling an infield fly in the eighth inning Friday. His call highlighted the absurdity of a sudden-death playoff system thrown together quickly and without a great deal of careful thought.
The idea was sound, much like the original plan to add a wild-card team back in 1994. More teams in contention in August and September means more fans in the stands, which means more money to the owners.
The original wild card – instituted when baseball went to three divisions from two – has worked well, even if purists grumble that the best-of-five opening series should be best-of-seven. It has added excitement to baseball races, and given teams that might never beat a juggernaut in their division something to play for.
The expanded wild card is more of a gimmick that punishes the wild-card entry with the best record and makes the 162-game regular season even less meaningful. There’s too much emphasis put on one game, too many chances that something weird – like a bizarre infield fly rule call – causes an entire season to suddenly go bad.
And let there be no mistake about it. The infield rule call was bizarre, beginning with the fact it was made in the outfield.
It might not have cost the Braves the game, but it surely cost them a chance to get back in the game. And while it may have been the technically correct call to make under the broad interpretation of the rule, it was the wrong call to make under the rule of common sense.
It was a call made by an umpire looking at the play from an angle he never sees during the regular season, when there are no outfield umps. The last time Holbrook was that far down the left- field line during the regular season, he probably was trying to get away from the bratwurst and hot dog racing between innings in Milwaukee.
It was also a judgment call, meaning no amount of instant replay could change it. Indeed, even after watching the video after the game, the umpires were unanimous in their opinion that the call was the right one.
Joe Torre, the former player and manager who now acts as MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, said he was sorry the controversy overshadowed the first game under the new format. But Torre said he found the game exciting, and liked the idea of the sudden- death playoff.
Not surprisingly, losing manager Fredi Gonzalez didn’t quite agree.
”Maybe they need to tweak the rules a little bit as you go forward,” Gonzalez said. ”But it was one game for both teams. So, that part was fair.”
The best tweak would be to expand the wild-card elimination to a best-of-three series, and play all games on the home field of the team with the best record. That would provide an incentive for having the best regular-season record of the two wild-card teams and eliminate a travel day that would push the postseason further into November.
That doesn’t guarantee the best team will win, but playing a minimum of two games takes some of the randomness out of it. Teams will play looser, managers will be able to set up their pitching staffs better, and umpires will have a few more games to get used to making calls down the outfield lines.
More importantly, fans won’t have to live with the idea of an entire season being wiped out by a fluke play or a bad call.
It’s a simple fix that will make September more competitive, and October even more interesting.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg