Wild Cards and Interleague Games Shuffle Playoff Deck

There are indelible images of September races, but both the memories and anticipation are clouded some by baseball's rapidly changing landscape:

* The insidious wild card, having proven to be a threat to the integrity of a 162-game schedule in 1996 and '95, may prove to be that again.

* The balanced schedule, in which teams play as many games outside their division as within, has been further compromised by the otherwise successful interleague experiment, diminishing the number of intradivision matchups in all divisions during September and leaving some divisions with few or no games between the contenders.

Consider:

* In the National League East, the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins do not meet over the final 4 1/2 weeks.

* Nor do the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers in the American League Central.

* The Dodgers and San Francisco Giants play only twice in the NL West, and the Angels and Seattle Mariners play only twice in the AL West.

"It's disappointing," Angel shortstop Gary DiSarcina said. "We always had four to six games [each] against [division rivals] Oakland, Texas and Seattle in September and your destiny was always in your hands.

"It's kind of a desperate feeling, knowing you have to do your job as always but also get some help.

"I've grown to like interleague play quite a bit, but I'd much rather be playing Seattle six games instead of playing six games against the National League."

The Angels began September by playing the Colorado Rockies on Monday night at Anaheim Stadium in the last of three consecutive two-game series against National League teams.

In the final month, both the Angels, with their fragile rotation, and Mariners, with their explosive bullpen, play more games outside their division than within, and the race is likely to be determined by which team can beat up more often on teams they should beat--Detroit, Toronto, Kansas City and Minnesota. The two games that the Angels and Mariners play against each other are the only two that either is scheduled to play against a team with a winning record.

Seattle Manager Lou Piniella said he would prefer staying within the division during the last month and would prefer playing a team in contention.

"Sometimes they're easier to play than a team playing nice and loose and just trying to put up numbers for the end of the season," he said.

The computer, of course, can't predict what kind of a season a team will have, and luck factors into the schedule every year.

While the Dodgers play seven of their last nine games against the Rockies, the Giants play seven of their last nine against the San Diego Padres, the 1996 division winner.

Who could have guessed that the Giants would start September battling the Dodgers for a division title while the Padres would be out of it?

Similarly, the Angels play seven of their last nine against Texas, a non-factor in '97 after winning in '96.

The Rangers, however, should still prove more competitive than the Oakland A's, who are scheduled to provide batting practice for the Mariners in seven of the last nine games.

"We can't predict who's going to be in the race, but we at least have teams finishing against divisional rivals," said Katy Feeney, the National League schedule supervisor.

To facilitate interleague play, the number of games that each team played against a division rival was reduced by one, and an intradivision series that was generally played in September was squeezed into two games in midsummer.

What with the two-game series, the Angels are traveling 43,000 miles this year. The Seattle Mariners, alone in the Pacific Northwest, are on and off planes close to 50 times.

No matter which realignment plan is adopted next year, Feeney said she was confident owners have reached a realization that an unbalanced schedule in which teams play more games within their division makes dollars and sense.

It would be a tough blow for all those New York Yankee and Boston Red Sox fans in Anaheim, since their favorite team would probably visit only once, rather than twice, but it would ease many of the travel and scheduling problems.

In the meantime, before their Sept. 17-18 series in San Francisco, the Dodgers and Giants each have 11 games against non-division foes, including nine against the Braves, Marlins and Houston Astros, possible playoff rivals.

"Honestly, I have to say there's nothing we lack," Dodger Vice President Fred Claire said as his rebuilt team prepared for September. "We have speed, power, pitching and experience. If we have health, there's nothing else to ask. We either win now or lose."

Claire also cited the interest and attendance boost that interleague has provided and said, "I don't think baseball could have been more fortunate with the schedule. It hasn't been a distraction or thrown off the balance of the race."

The schedule is not entirely without games between contenders:

* In the NL Central, the Astros have four left with those surprising Pittsburgh Pirates.

* In the AL Central, the Indians don't have to play the Brewers but have seven left with the Chicago White Sox, providing Jerry Reinsdorf doesn't trade the rest of the team.

* In the AL East, the Yankees and Baltimore Orioles meet eight times in 11 days, starting Thursday.

The problem is, do the Orioles and Yankees really care, or has much of the significance been stripped by the wild card berth?

As of Monday, the Yankees trailed the Orioles by 6 1/2 games but held a wild-card lead of 5 1/2 games over the Mariners and 6 1/2 over the Angels.

Put another way, the Orioles have a 12-game wild-card lead over the Mariners and 13 over the Angels.

Thus, barring total collapses, the Orioles and Yankees would both seem assured of playoff berths, no matter what happens in those eight games. So much for the drama.

Likewise, in the National League on Monday, the Marlins trailed the Braves by 4 1/2 games in the East, but the fact that they don't get another crack at the Braves doesn't seem as meaningful, since they held a 3 1/2-game wild-card lead on the Dodgers and a six-game lead on the Giants.

The point is: There is no significant difference in reaching the playoffs as a division winner or wild-card team, no real reward or penalty, aside from a loss of home-field advantage for the wild card in the division series and the league championship series, if the wild card advances.

Last year, the Dodgers and Padres played the final game of the season with the division title on the line.

It might have been the ultimate, dramatic conclusion of a 162-game season, but it really meant nothing, since the loser was already assured a wild-card berth. And both teams played it that way, adjusting lineups and pitching for the playoffs.

"I can't fault the wild-card concept on balance because it keeps more teams involved but it created a situation last year that I didn't like at all, and I feel strongly about that," Claire said. "When people start asking questions, when they start saying, 'Wouldn't it be better if you did this or that?' you've got a problem that needs to be addressed. I mean, you should never have a question about the importance of winning a game. If you have no interest in winning it, you shouldn't play it."

Introduced as a complement to the three-division format in 1994, there were questions regarding integrity and the wild-card design both that year and in 1995 as well.

If it has kept a few more teams in the race, it has tended to strip meaning from it as well. There is also no widespread indication that it has stimulated attendance or fan conversation in cities still contending for the wild-card berth. If players talk about it at all, it's in the dangerous context of, "It doesn't matter how you get to the playoffs, just get there."

How it plays out in this new September remains to be seen. However, you need to know nothing more about the business and it's changing landscape than this:

On Labor Day, the first day of the season's final month, a holiday on which teams generally play to big crowds as an unofficial introduction to the stretch run, the Dodgers did not play.

They traveled to Texas to begin an interleague series with the Rangers tonight.

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