Stealing Division From Yankees Begins Friday in the Bronx


September 25, 2009

Any baseball fan worth his or her salt will claim that the only thing that matters is making the playoffs. Division title or wild card, it doesn't matter. Fans realize that out of 30 teams, 22 won't make the playoffs, so just being among the elite eight is an honor in and of itself.

But is that really true?

Is "it's an honor just to be nominated" just an empty platitude we tell ourselves to cushion the blow in case we take the division and don't win it all?

Does winning the wild card — even if it leads to an eventual World Series win — mean as much? Or is it a consolation prize?

Major League Baseball instituted the wild card into the playoff system in 1995, making it a relatively new innovation. Hoping to expand parity and give more teams a chance of competing for the World Series, the playoffs expanded from six teams to eight, and another round was added to the postseason.

Since the wild card was instituted, four wild-card winners — the 1997 Florida Marlins, 2002 Anaheim Angels, 2003 Florida Marlins and 2004 Boston Red Sox — have gone on to win the World Series.

But do wild-card winners really count as much as division winners?

Part of the reason for the wild card is to prevent teams that have strong competition in their division from missing out on the playoffs because of the weaker competition in other divisions. (For example, an 81-win team in one division would keep a second-place, 90-win team in another division out of the playoffs without the wild card.) And when it works that way, it's great. But there is criticism as well. Some fans claim that the wild card dilutes the caliber of competition in the playoffs and provides a backdoor for lesser teams to snag the ultimate prize.

But how do Red Sox fans feel?

Boston fans have the unique perspective of having recent World Series winners from both wild-card winners (2004) and division winners (2007).

Did one championship mean more than the other?

Was 2007 worth more because the team won the AL East for the first time in 12 years (and had the best record in baseball), or did 2004 mean more simply because it was the first championship for the Red Sox in 86 years?

Does how they got there matter?

Yankees fans will likely claim that a Red Sox wild-card win means less because the Sox still couldn't beat the Yankees in the regular season to get there.

But is that true?

This weekend's series in the Bronx is crucial for several reasons. First, anything short of a Yankees sweep will award the season series to the Red Sox, who hold a 9-6 edge with three games to play. Additionally, with 10 games to play in the regular season, the Red Sox are 5 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the AL East and still have a shot to win the division, should New York go into a tailspin. While Joe Girardi may decide to rest his starters to ensure they're fresh for the playoffs, doing so could compromise the team's hold on the East, potentially opening a loophole for the Red Sox to step through.

Stealing the division at the last moment from the Yankees would be a coup, for sure, but would it mean anything more than bragging rights?

The playoff system is structured so that teams in divisional series cannot face off against opponents from their own division (the wild-card winner), so the only shot the Yankees and Red Sox have of meeting in the playoffs would be in the American League Championship Series. Again.

In 2004, the Red Sox won the season series with the Yankees 11-8 but quickly fell behind three games to none against them in the ALCS (after sweeping the Angels in three games in the division series). Everyone knows the story of that epic Red Sox comeback (a feat never equaled before in professional baseball), and it's unlikely any Red Sox fan — or Yankees fan, for that matter — thought the comeback mattered less because the Red Sox were a wild-card team. The historic implications of the moment and the series eclipsed any "runner-up" feelings they might otherwise have felt.

But was it just important because the Red Sox went through the Yankees to get there? Had the Yankees lost in their divisional series to the Twins and the Red Sox beaten Minnesota on the way to the World Series, would it have meant as much? It?s doubtful.

Conversely, the Red Sox? 2007 championship somehow felt less determined by karma and less crucially important – even though Boston ran away with the division, taking the lead April 18 and never looking back. The Red Sox dispatched the Anaheim Angels in the ALDS again, then faced the Cleveland Indians in the ALCS and penned another comeback story, winning the series in seven games after being down three games to one.

But there was less a sense of urgency to the situation this time. When the Red Sox won, it wasn't a surprise. They were tied with Indians for the best record in baseball and had won the tiebreaker to determine home-field advantage. By numbers alone, they were supposed to win.

Perhaps that is what matters in the playoffs. Perhaps expectations and opponent matter more than whether a team wins the wild card or the division. If the Red Sox somehow sneak through and steal the AL East from the Yankees this weekend, it will be sweet — nothing is better than sticking it to your archenemy – but will it matter in the playoffs?

Maybe it will all be bragging rights and hot air until the ALCS when both teams could square off again. At that point, all bets are off.

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