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Extra wild cards are a big deal

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 3, 2012
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - All sports need a jump-start or reinvention from time to time, and a small change agreed upon yesterday by Major League Baseball and the players’ union in which 10 teams, not eight, will qualify for the playoffs should provide that.

In each league, there will be two wild-card teams and a one-game wild-card round, starting this season.

“The more the merrier,’’ said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. “For the fans, the players, the energy at the end of the season, I don’t mind. I think it’ll be good. I have no idea how the American League will shake out and where that extra team will come from.’’

Also, and this is somewhat controversial, for just this season the five-game Division Series will begin with two home games for the lower seed, followed by up to three for the higher seed. The change eliminates a travel day prior to a decisive Game 5. Controversy could develop if the lower seed gets an early advantage by playing at home.

“There were a number of different scenarios that were considered,’’ union executive director Michael Weiner said on a conference call. “We did try to make this 2012 [playoff structure] work with the 2013 format, but it just proved to be a lot of challenges. We had to get five games in only six days. You’d have a lot more instance with complications.’’

The team that emerges from the wild-card round in each league will play the team with the best record. This temporary fix was necessary because the 2012 regular-season schedule was announced before the agreement on the new postseason was reached, but next year the Division Series will return to a 2-2-1 format.

The sides struggled because the regular season is scheduled to end Wednesday, Oct. 3, leaving two days for travel and possible weather problems, possible season-ending tiebreakers to decide division titles and wild-card berths, and the wild-card elimination games games prior to the start of the Division Series on Saturday, Oct. 6. The World Series is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, Oct. 24.

The main thing this does is it increases urgency to win the division rather than just make the playoffs.

“If it gives every game of the regular season more value, I think it’s a good thing,’’ Valentine said.

“It’s our answer to March Madness where you have single elimination,’’ agent Scott Boras said. “That game will change. You may see a whole different managerial approach to one game. What brings a wholesomeness to it is that you’re playing for the division and the meaning of being a good team is now properly placed.’’

Commissioner Bud Selig said, “I greatly appreciate the MLBPA’s cooperation in putting the new postseason format in place this year. The enthusiasm for the 10-team structure among our clubs, fans, and partners has been overwhelming. This change increases the rewards of a division championship and allows two additional markets to experience playoff baseball each year, all while maintaining the most exclusive postseason in professional sports.’’

The other thing it does, as Red Sox pitcher Daniel Bard pointed out, is “it enables more teams to play important games through September.’’

The sudden-death aspect has been met with some resistance by players who feel it would be a slap in the face to make the playoffs and then be eliminated in one game.

For the first time, there could be three playoff teams (Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays, for instance) from one division. A third-place team could win the World Series.

Traditionalists may not like the tinkering, feeling baseball’s playoffs would be watered down, the charge the NBA and NHL hear all the time. Still, there’s quite a difference between 16 of 30 teams making the playoffs (as occurs in the NBA and NHL), and 10 of the 30 making it.

If the format was in place last season, the Red Sox would have faced the Rays in the wild-card round. And if that had happened, who knows whether the issues that beset the Sox would even have surfaced?

The Braves, who also authored an epic collapse, would have been in the same boat in the National League. “I would have taken it last year,’’ Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told the Associated Press.

In 2013, the Astros will move to the American League, creating two 15-team leagues with three divisions in each, which should in the eyes of the players’ union give teams a more equal chance of making the playoffs.

While starting the new playoff format next season might make more sense, Selig felt getting it started as soon as possible would pique interest. The general consensus is the format is good for the game and will be exciting for fans.

“The players are eager to begin playing under this new format in 2012 and they look forward to moving to full realignment in 2013,’’ said Weiner. “Our negotiating committee and the owners’ representatives worked hard to develop a schedule that should make for fairer competition and provide our fans with a very exciting season.’’

It was time for baseball to reinvent itself. This might have done it.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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