- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The universe is expanding. I know this because I heard it once in a Woody Allen movie. And as the character noted with appropriate dread, “if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!”

It should be no surprise, then, that the Major League Baseball playoffs are expanding from eight teams to 10 this season. It’s the natural order of things, a cosmic force that simply can’t be denied. What’s the famous saying? Oh, yes: If you’re not growing, you’re dying. (It’s just that some people, like CC Sabathia, take it a little too literally.)

Purists may worry that the postseason is being further polluted by also-rans, but heck, there already was the potential for an 83-win club to win the World Series. Witness the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. Once baseball split into divisions in the ‘60s, the horse was officially out of the barn.

Let’s face it, baseball’s season is almost twice as long as any other sport’s. (And it seems even longer now that stepping out of the batter’s box has become so fashionable.) You can’t ask fans to follow their teams for 162 games, at no small financial and emotional cost, and then exclude so many of them from the playoff fun. It’s just not good business.

Besides, as other sports have shown, the postseason is the time when you showcase your game — and the longer you can make the postseason last, the longer you can keep the public’s attention focused on it. Does anyone really think the NFL has damaged itself by increasing the number of its playoff field from two (through 1966) to the current 10? Why, the league’s popularity is at an all-time high.

Look at it from the Washington point of view. The NFL instituted wild-card berths — one in each conference — in 1970, when it merged with the AFL. The next year, George Allen’s Redskins were the NFC’s wild-card team … and were again in ‘73, ‘74 and ‘76. Imagine how different the ‘70s would have been around here if the league hadn’t expanded its playoff format.

It was the same thing in 1990, when the NFL went from four wild cards to six. Had that not happened, the Redskins wouldn’t have qualified for the postseason that year (and wouldn’t have upset the Eagles in Philadelphia to avenge their loss in the infamous “Bodybag Game”). And of course, a couple of sixth seeds, the 2010 Green Bay Packers and the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, have gone on to win the Super Bowl.

It’s easy to dismiss wild-card teams as a product of sports inflation, as symbols of the everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality. But sometimes they’re just teams that peaked later than other clubs — or got healthy in the second half of the season. This much is certain: They produce massive amounts of havoc in the playoffs, break hearts from Philadelphia to Anaheim. I mean, there’s a reason they call them wild cards. And in a game that’s still debating the merits of the designated hitter (and took a century to grasp the importance of the on-base percentage), they’re a particularly subversive element.

Indeed, there are old-school types who have resisted the notion of wild cards every step of the way. But it’s hard to hold back the tide of history, pointless even. The universe is expanding, and there’s nothing you, I or Bud Selig can do about it. All we can do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

The first year, especially, could be straight out of Six Flags. In fact, as the regular season winds down, baseball probably will be wishing there were 32 days in October. In one doomsday scenario, a team could have to play a tiebreaker game just to get to the win-or-pack-it-in wild-card round. The possibility of rainouts would complicate matters even further. And we haven’t even discussed all the hopping around, from one city to another, these wild-card clubs might have to do.

But some of that can be sorted out over time as MLB fine-tunes the process. The main thing is, the playoffs have become more inclusive, more fan-friendly — and a bone has even been thrown to the traditionalists. While more teams will be in the mix now, it will be more difficult for a wild card to win the World Series because it will have a longer and harder road to travel.

But never mind that. A Washington baseball team hasn’t advanced to the postseason since 1933. Anything that raises the Nationals’ window of opportunity is fine by me. That’s a long time, 1933. The universe back then was a much smaller place.