So eager are the Seattle Mariners to get to the ballpark these
days that few of them bother to wait for the daily charter bus
that leaves the team hotel three hours before game time. Last
Friday only three players disembarked from the team bus at
Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. The rest of the Mariners had
commandeered taxis for earlier arrivals.
Later that night, after a 2-1 victory over the Royals that left
the second-place Mariners 10-1/2 games out of first place in the
American League West, they lingered in front of the clubhouse
television set, watching scores and highlights from other games
with the intensity of horseplayers at an off-track betting
parlor. "Go, Cleveland!" shouted reliever Norm Charlton at the TV.
Meanwhile, Texas Ranger manager Johnny Oates, whose team was in
third place in the American League West, found himself rooting
for California, the first-place team in his own division. Said
Oates, "I'm not worried about catching the Angels. I'm more
worried about staying ahead of the people behind us. You've got
to be realistic once in a while. Who have we got a better chance
of beating right now, Seattle or California?"
Over in the National League, Houston Astro outfielder Derek Bell
sounded surprisingly sanguine about his team's second-place
standing, 7-1/2 games behind the Cincinnati Reds. "We don't need
to put pressure on ourselves by saying we have to catch the
Reds," said Bell. "It's not a matter of winning the division.
It's a matter of getting into the playoffs any way you can."
If you're wondering what in the name of Bobby Thomson is going
on, welcome to baseball's first wild-card race. Like diet cola,
baseball now comes artificially sweetened. Its expanded playoff
format, which includes admittance for one second-place team in
each league, has made for a new kind of competition that's
congested, controversial and confusing. It has also created a
welcome buzz around many clubhouses, if not in the stands, in a
season in which five of the six division races look to be as
suspenseful as old reruns of Gilligan's Island.
"I've been here when we've been 20 games out on Aug. 15, and it
was tough coming to the ballpark knowing that," says Seattle
first baseman Tino Martinez. "This definitely feels like a
Through Sunday, with seven weeks remaining in the season, 15 of
baseball's 28 teams were either in first place or within 5-1/2
games of a playoff spot. Three of those teams were in the hunt
without benefit of a winning record. The American League
wild-card race was tighter than Spandex, with five teams
separated by only three games: Texas, New York, Seattle,
Milwaukee and Kansas City. Last week alone the lead belonged to
the Yankees on Wednesday, the Rangers on Thursday, the Mariners
on Friday and the Rangers on Saturday.
In the National League three teams hung within 5-1/2 games of
wild-card leader Houston. Two of them, Colorado and Los Angeles,
were battling for the National League West title. Chicago, 11
games back in the Central, was also in contention for the last
playoff position. San Diego lingered as an odd footnote, hanging
closer to first place in the West than to a wild-card spot.
"I think it's done exactly what it was intended to do: create
more interest and keep more teams in the hunt," says Yankee
pitcher David Cone. "Look at the flurry of trades recently: Andy
Benes goes to Seattle, Bobby Witt to Texas, Bobby Bonilla to
Baltimore....Those and some others don't get made without the
wild card out there."
Fans, however, have been slow to buy into the wild-card action,
especially because in many cases the teams' records have been
more mild than wild. Though as Cone says, "This is a season
where it's difficult for anything to bring people out to the
ballpark." Last Thursday, the day the wild-card-leading Astros
traded for closer Mike Henneman and started ace Doug Drabek
against the Montreal Expos, only 13,690 people bought tickets
for that evening's game at the Astrodome. The Brewers sold only
12,791 tickets for their game on Friday night.
Many clubs and media outlets are ignoring the wild-card
standings when, in fact, they are equally as important as the
divisional standings. When the Yankees and the Orioles played
last week, neither club made one mention of the wild-card
standings--call these divisions the AL and NL Rest--in the
combined 11 pages of game notes provided to the media on Aug. 9.
Last Friday's edition of The Kansas City Star included an
explanation of the point system for determining the Canadian
Football League standings but made no mention of the wild-card
standings. A reader that day would have known only that the
hometown Royals trailed first-place Cleveland by 19 games,
though the more salient fact was that Kansas City was only one
game back of three teams in the loss column in the race for the
wild-card playoff spot.
The proximity of a playoff spot appeared to be lost on the
Royals' front office as well, judging by the way K.C.'s brass
overhauled the roster after that 2-1 loss to Seattle. Kansas
City traded or cut veterans Vince Coleman, Chris James and Pat
Borders and summoned four unproven players from the minor
leagues. The message, though general manager Herk Robinson did
his best to say otherwise, was that the Royals folded their
wild-card hand to prepare for next year. "It's almost like we've
abandoned any hope of [a wild card]," said pitcher Jeff
Montgomery. "I think that's what the guys feel most shocked
For those still in the race, scoreboard watching, especially in
the snarled American League, can be exasperating. Says Seattle
manager Lou Piniella, "You don't know who to root for. It
changes every damn day. The thing to do is to take care of
yourself. In the end I don't think hanging around .500 is going
to be enough. I think eight over is a good number."
"I'd like to see us open up a little distance," says Yankee
first baseman Don Mattingly, who has played more games without
going to the postseason than any active player. "But if we get
in as a wild card, does that lessen what it means? Hell, no. I
was on a team in 1985 that won 97 games--the second-best record
in the league--and we didn't go to the playoffs."
Seattle isn't looking at the wild card as a cheap way of getting
into the postseason either. The race to be runner-up prompted
the Mariners to trade for Benes and what's left of his $3.4
million salary only 10 days before announcing that the club
expects to lose $30 million this year. What's more, Ken Griffey
Jr. is expected to rejoin the Mariners this week after missing
three months with a broken hand. "It's going to be like an
acquisition," Randy Johnson says. "Like, hey, we just picked up
Ken Griffey on the waiver wire."
Seattle was scheduled to play 39 of its final 48 games against
wild-card contenders or division leaders, "so it's in our
hands," Piniella says. Texas has an easier ride, with only 10
games left against teams with winning records. Piniella knows
too that the short first-round divisional series (best of five)
helps, rather than handicaps, a lesser wild-card team against a
deeper divisional champion. The Mariners, for instance, could
start Johnson in Games 1 and 4--they are 18-3 when he
starts--while choosing among Benes, Chris Bosio and Tim Belcher
in Games 2 and 3. "In a five-game series, we're as equipped as
anybody," Piniella says.
No wonder the Mariners are gladly logging extended hours at the
ballpark. Here it is mid-August, and they are rightfully talking
about playing deep into October. Simply wild.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Catcher Mike Matheny's Brewers were 18 games out of first but still holding on to playoff hopes. [Mike Matheny tagging opponent with ball]
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CLARKE Even as Raul Mondesi and the Dodgers chase a division title, they're also in a wild-card race. [Raul Mondesi sliding into base]