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WILD ABOUT THE WILD CARD
The wild card is a great thing. Since its inception, it's given fans so much more to be enthusiastic about, right down to the last day of the season. To come into a wild-card race in 2003 with five teams within a game and a half or two games, that was crazy. You know there are good quality teams behind you and you're going to have to play some great ball down the stretch to get into the playoffs. I don't know how confident I was, coming into the last month, thinking we would be able to do it. But every night we found a way to eke out a win. It was fun. We did a lot of scoreboard watching, every night as you take your position in the field, to see what the other scores were. Being able to be thrust into a battle like that was so exciting, to get back into the playoff hunt which I hadn't been in for six years. To come over here and have every game mean so much was great. Every inning, every pitch, every at-bat could mean the difference between a win and a loss.
When you amplify it like that, that last month seemed like I was here for the whole season. -Jeff Conine
Two world titles. A 6-0 record in postseason series. Zero divisional crowns.
No wonder Florida is wild about the wild card.
Babe Ruth would not recognize the term, a Bud Selig brainstorm conceived to promote parity, sustain fan interest, and raise revenues through smaller divisions and larger playoffs.
In 1994, four years before Selig became the first owner-turnedcommissioner, each of the two 14-team leagues changed from a twodivision format to three. Divisions that had been the same size, with seven teams each, suddenly had a 5-5-4 configuration, making it easier for teams in the smallest divisions to finish first (the National League is now 5-5-6, with two new teams added in 1998).
Three divisions meant three champions and the need for a playoff before the playoff. Enter the Division Series, pitting the team with the best record against a "wild-card" opponent, the secondplace team with the best record. The other two division winners would also face off, with the winners of each league's two Division Series advancing to the Championship Series.
Adding another round of playoffs infuriated baseball purists, who said such a device increased the odds that the best teams might not reach the World Series. But Selig, who spent six years as chairman of baseball's Executive Committee while allegedly searching for a full-time commissioner, insisted fan interest would linger longer in multiple cities, not just those of the likely divisional champions.
After the 1994 postseason was cancelled by a player strike, Selig's theory proved true in 1995 when the Colorado Rockies, in their third season, won the National League wild-card chase and reached the playoffs. They didn't last long, but their success showed almost anybody could win.
Two years later, the Florida Marlins took the idea further. They not only swept the Division Series from the San Francisco Giants but beat the Atlanta Braves in the Championship Series and the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. Though they finished nine games behind during the regular season, the Marlins had become the first wild-card team to win a world championship.
Six seasons later, they did it again. After a dreadful start that cost manager Jeff Torborg his job, the Marlins closed with a rush, posting baseball's best record over the final four months. Ten games behind the Braves in the NL East, they again beat the Giants in the first round, then needed seven games to beat the Chicago Cubs and six to knock off the New York Yankees to earn their second world championship.
One year after two wild-card winners had reached the World Series for the first time, every team insisted on taking its shot.
Florida had hoped to follow in the footsteps of the San Francisco Giants and Anaheim Angels, the two wild-card winners of the previous year. But it had given no hint of challenging for a wildcard berth prior to July.
After losing their March 31 opener to Philadelphia, the Marlins ambled through April at a .500 pace (14-14). The bottom fell out in May, when the team endured two six-game losing streaks even though it changed managers in between.
"This is a better team than we've shown," general manager Larry Beinfest told USA Today Sports Weekly. "This team should be in the pennant race. Right now we're not. There's enough time to turn it around and get back in it. That's part of the reason for making the change now."
The kind, gentle Torborg was out, and crusty old Jack McKeon was in. Despite McKeon's reputation for always having a trick up his sleeve, the change didn't help right away.
On May 22, after suffering a sweep in Montreal, the Marlins were 19-29. Eight days later, still five games under .500, their 26-31 record left them essentially tied for last place, 12 games behind the Braves. They were also last in the eight-team scramble for the wild card, eight games behind the front-running Expos.
A 16-11 mark in June helped the Marlins reach .500, but their 42-42 record left them last in the wild-card standings, five and a half games behind Philadelphia.
Things changed as the weather warmed. The return of injured starter Josh Beckett, the acquisition of veteran closer Ugueth Urbina, and the continued success of rookies Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera helped the Marlins emerge as a serious wild-card contender.
No fewer than eight National League teams were still alive by July 4th weekend, and the lead kept switching back and forth, like a squirrel trying to cross the street. Only four games separated the Crazy Eight, with the Philadelphia Phillies (47-38) and Arizona Diamondbacks (48-39) leading the pack.
Also in the wild, wild race were the Montreal Expos, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, and Los Angeles Dodgers. With Atlanta and San Francisco comfortably ahead in both the East and West, the Cubs and Astros, barely over .500 at 44-43, were bidding for both the NL Central crown and the wild card, while the entire group was keeping a watchful eye on the surging Marlins, rejuvenated by their rookie sensations.
After sweeping a late-July series in Philadelphia, Florida stood three games behind the wild-card leaders and captured the attention of Phillies manager Larry Bowa.
"Florida played like we had been playing," he said. "They got key hits, moved runners, and created things."
Though McKeon saluted his charges with a "We're on a roll" announcement, inwardly he was cautious. He remembered 1999, when his Cincinnati Reds dropped two of three to struggling Milwaukee over the final weekend, forcing a one-game playoff against the Mets for the wild-card berth. Al Leiter threw a two-hit shutout, and the Reds, on the verge of winning the NL Central, wound up with nothing.
"At the first meeting I had with the players, I told them we could make the playoffs," McKeon confided. "All they had to do was dig deeper, work hard, give 100 percent, and play unselfish baseball."
With a 17-7 record during the month, the team moved into second place, a game and a half behind the Phillies in the wild-card standings, though still 12 games behind Atlanta in the division.
"We've had some growing pains," said Mike Lowell, the slugger who survived a half-season of trade rumors to remain with the team, "but right now everything is coming together."
Realizing the race was serious, Marlins management made major moves to bulk up the potential postseason roster. Chad Fox, Rick Helling, and Lenny Harris were signed as free agents, and Jeff Conine, an original Marlin, returned from Baltimore at the end of August to replace the injured Mike Lowell. But the dog days proved too difficult as Florida floundered with a 14-14 record.
The Expos had been hot, with 11 wins in 15 games, but the Marlins, Phillies, and other pretenders to the throne had stumbled around the far turn before entering the final month. The August 29 sports section of USA Today even had a headline that read "NL wild card: You take it; no, it's yours."
Entering September, Florida was tied for first in the wild-card standings with a 73-63 mark, matching Philadelphia's mark but a game and a half up on the Dodgers. Even an August-ending sweep of the Expos didn't do much for Florida's fading title chances in the NL East; the Braves had entered September with a 14-game lead. But every time the Marlins looked up, they saw the wild-card prize hanging like mistletoe over a doorjam.
Because so many teams were involved, the ninth National League wild-card race was more prolonged and more involved than any previous one. By Labor Day weekend, seven clubs were still alive, with just two games separating them from top to bottom.
The youthful Marlins started the final month by finishing off the Expos, who had entered the four-game series tied for tops in the wild-card standings. Florida stayed as hot as the weather, parlaying potent pitching, dynamic defense, and timely hitting into an 18-8 record, best in the division that month. But it wasn't a cakewalk.
On September 15, Philadelphia beat Florida, 14-0, to pull within a half game. The Marlins bounced back to win the following night, 11-4, but dropped the series finale, 5-4, before heading south to Atlanta.
"We had the lead but just didn't hold it," said McKeon, whose team blew leads of 3-0 and 4-3 in the game. "When you get a threerun lead, you've got to close them out."
Some critics contended the manager should have used Braden Looper or Ugie Urbina, while others charged he had already used Looper too much. But no one on the Florida staff seemed capable of stopping the red-hot Jim Thome, who homered for the Phils in all three games. His last home run, against Chad Fox in the eighth inning of the finale, proved to be the game winner.
The Atlanta series opened on a Friday night that meant nothing to the Braves and everything to the Marlins. But Josh Beckett and the Fish ran into Russ Ortiz, who pitched a 1-0 shutout-only the second shutout of his six-year career-for the Braves. Florida won two of the next three games, however, before returning home for the remainder of the season.
The Marlins opened against Philadelphia on Tuesday night, September 23. Kevin Millwood, Philadelphia's ace, worked six scoreless innings before the Marlins answered back. A five-run seventh, highlighted by a three-run Jeff Conine homer, gave the Marlins a 5- 4 win and increased the team's wild-card lead to two. It went up to three the next night, when Florida survived a five-run Philadelphia eighth to win, 6-5.
Then, on Friday night, September 26, Florida clinched when Ugueth Urbina saved Carl Pavano's 4-3 win over the last-place New York Mets. The final wild-card standings showed the Marlins with a four-game lead over Houston, five over Philadelphia, and six over both St. Louis and Los Angeles.
Refusing to give anything away, the Marlins had won nine of their last 11 games, played nine consecutive errorless games from September 7-17, and specialized in beating NL East rivals.
Florida compiled a .631 winning percentage and won a clubrecord 48 games against divisional rivals, finishing with a flourish by taking 15 of its last 21 games and six of its last seven. The team had never won more than 15 games in the month of September.
For the season, Florida was 10-9 against Atlanta, 13-6 against Philadelphia, 13-6 against Montreal, and 12-7 against New York. They struggled against Central Division teams, posting winning records only against the lowly Reds and Brewers, and against NL West opponents, losing more than they won against all but Arizona and San Diego.
The schedule had worked in Florida's favor: with the exception of a three-game Pittsburgh series early in the month, their September itinerary listed games only against NL East rivals, including six games versus Philadelphia. Winning four of those six helped the Fish finish their march to October.
The Marlins would not have reached the postseason without the wild card.
"This one might be a little sweeter because nobody thought we could do this," said Jeff Conine at the conclusion of the regular season. He should know, as he's the only man to play for both Florida world champions.
Although the 1997 Marlins were the first wild-card team to reach the World Series, three of the last four World Series contestants also got there via the wild-card route.
"Winning the wild card makes you big-game ready," said Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee.
Not that the concept isn't without its naysayers.
"Critics accused us of cheapening the pennant races and the World Series," Bud Selig admitted. "Now, nearly a decade after we implemented the wild card and three-division play, it has worked out even better than we thought it would."
That's especially true in South Florida.