Under the playoff format of a few years ago, neither the San Francisco Giants nor the Anaheim Angels would be preparing to open the 98th World Series this Saturday.
But after an unpredictable postseason in which baseball’s three winningest teams were eliminated in the first round and two more division winners were toppled in the second, the final series will be a battle of Wild Things.
For the first time, two teams that could not win their own divisions will compete for baseball’s world championship. That could not have happened before 1995, the first year baseball let wild-card teams into the playoff hunt.
“I love the wild card. It’s great,” said Jarrod Washburn, the Angels left-hander, grinning ear-to-ear after being named Saturday’s Game 1 starter. “Hey, the Giants are a great team, I know we’re a great team, and once you get into the playoffs, it’s fair game. The Giants got hot and we got hot, so we’ll be playing to see who wins it all.”
For years, baseball resisted the television-driven temptation to add more teams and tiers to its playoffs. Unlike football, basketball and hockey, it remained the only major sport requiring a first-place finish for playoff eligibility.
That wall came down in 1994, when commissioner Bud Selig convinced owners to adopt a new postseason format of six division winners and two wild-card clubs. Each league split from two divisions to three that year, but the playoffs were wiped out by a players strike.
Another strike was narrowly averted this year at the end of August. And no one is more thankful than the players and fans of these two long-suffering California teams.
The Angels will be making the first World Series appearance in the 42-year history of their franchise. They leave behind their 1961 expansion brethren – the Washington Senators who became the Texas Rangers – as the franchise that has gone the longest since inception without winning a pennant.
The Giants are in their first World Series since the earthquake-marred 1989 loss to Oakland. They have not won a World Series since 1954, a 48-year drought exceeded only by the Chicago Cubs (94 years), Chicago White Sox (85), Boston (84) and Cleveland (54).
San Francisco fans are deeply appreciative of the wild card, especially after seeing their 1993 team win 103 games under the old system and miss the playoffs because Atlanta won 104 to take the division title.
“I think the biggest thing is it adds a lot of enthusiasm for the fans, because you’ve got that extra chance to get in,” Angels closer Troy Percival said. “You look at our division, where you’ve got one of the best records in baseball in front of us (Oakland went 103-59 to win the AL West), there’s only so much you can do. The wild card has been great both for us and for San Francisco.”
The Angels finished the season with baseball’s fourth-best record (99-63), but a decade earlier would have missed the playoffs despite that club record for wins. The Giants went 95-66, finishing 2 games behind Arizona with a record that would have placed them third in the AL West.
“It says a lot about each division,” said Anaheim second baseman Adam Kennedy, MVP of the AL Championship Series. “The West, for each league, was pretty tough.”
If not for that wild-card safety net, these teams would have perished in September. Instead, they have joined two previous wild-card clubs that reached the World Series. The Florida Marlins won it all in 1997; the New York Mets fell to the cross-town Yankees in the Subway Series of 2000.
“I think once you get in the playoffs, you can forget how you got there,” Scioscia said. “Whether it’s a wild card or you won your division by one game or by 30 games, it becomes academic. It’s a new season.”