While I celebrated the fall of the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS this past Saturday night, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed at how the season ended. As an Indians fan, I’d once again be watching the World Series without a real rooting interest. I suppose having both my favorite teams in the Series last year means I don’t get to enjoy such spoils for at least a couple more decades, and as a Cleveland fan in general I’ve had plenty of practice watching other teams win championships, but it doesn’t make it any more fun. In terms of wins and losses, this was the second-best Indians team ever, and they played like it. But instead they get to watch from the couch because of a team that didn’t even win their division.
But why even have divisions? Prior to Major League Baseball splitting things up into East and West in 1969 and long before our modern-day addiction to playoffs (and their TV revenue) the World Series was played between the two teams who compiled the best record all season. Finished 3 games behind the Yankees? Tough luck. Had a hot September but a cold July? There’s always next year. A 162-game season was considered a better indicator of who was the best team in the land than two abbreviated series of 3-7 games spaced out over a month. Weird, huh?
Still, I wondered: How different would the World Series have been if there weren't playoffs? What if, instead of the two hottest teams in October, we saw a battle between the two best teams in baseball? I decided to spend my entire evening take a little time to figure it out, and here’s what I found:
The first team to have the best record in their League and fail to win the Pennant was the 1972 Pirates, who lost to the Reds in the deciding 5th game on a wild pitch, in what turned out to be the last game of Roberto Clemente’s career. Oakland (who did have the best record in the AL) would top the Reds in 7 to take the World Series.
The first World Series to feature two teams without the best record in their League was 1973. A “traditional” World Series would have featured the Orioles and Reds, instead of the A’s and the Mets.
During the East-West divisional years, the “traditional” World Series remained fairly common, with 13 instances of the top-seeded playoff teams facing each other in the Fall Classic and only 5 instances where neither top seed made it. In the Wild Card Era, though, it’s another story; there have only been 3 “traditional” Series since 1995, compared to 9 without either top seed. Considering we’ve now had the Wild Card nearly as long as we had the East-West format (there’s a scary thought) it’s a pretty stark contrast.
If you got sick of Bobby Cox getting outcoached in the World Series in the 90s, then you’re probably thankful for the Wild Card. Without it, the Braves would have won 9 NL pennants between 1992-2003, including 7 in a row bookended by the Barry Bonds-led Pirates and Giants. The Yankees would have been in the Series less in the 90s, but more in the 00s, so there unfortunately wouldn’t be much difference there.
Much to the chagrin of ESPN, the Yankees-Mets Subway Series would not have happened in 2000, which would have instead featured the White Sox and Giants. They would still have gotten their wish in 2006.
The Chicago Cubs’ 2016 NL Pennant would not have been the one to snap their World Series drought. Instead, it would’ve been their fourth Pennant since 1984, and their second in the last ten years. Still, considering the teams they would have been facing in the 80s (the powerhouse ’84 Tigers and ’89 A’s), it still may very well have been the team that broke the Championship drought.
The Marlins, Padres and Rockies would still be without a World Series appearance. But the Mariners’ 116-game winners would have made it in 2001, and the Nationals would have two Pennants since 2012.
Indians fans can breathe a sigh of relief that neither of their extra-inning-game-7 tragedies would have occurred, as they wouldn’t have made the Series to suffer through it. They would, however, have gotten a rematch with the Braves in 1996, and we’d be watching Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller quiet down Dodger Stadium instead of watching the Astros’ pitching melt in the LA heat.
You can draw your own conclusions about how Nolan Ryan would have fared against Reggie Jackson in ’80, or whether Don Denkinger’s blown call at 1st would have given the Blue Jays their first ever World Series title in ’85. But I’d settle for adding some meaning to the regular season and rewarding success all year long, not just at the last minute.
Jack Obora is a political liberal and a sports conservative. He lives in Dublin with his girlfriend, his cat, and his music library, and spends way too much time learning things that will help him win bar trivia nights. You can follow him on Twitter @JackObora.