If you're anything like me, you're probably thinking, "Division playoffs, League Championship playoffs, World Series showdowns, Wild Card spots ... will someone please make sense out of all this?" (If you're anything like me, you're also probably thinking this as you dive into your third consecutive bag of Spicy Buffalo Combos, but we'll talk about that later.)
Believe it or not, there once was a time in baseball history when there were no postseason games. No World Series championships. No merchandising tie-ins. No Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. (Ha! Just kidding! Buck and McCarver are immortal.)
All of that changed in 1901 with the formation of the American League. Prior to that, there was only the National League, a time of great oppression and misery, a time when bunts plagued the earth like, I don't know, some kind of plague. For the first two years of its existence, the American League was harassed, mocked, and often had its milk money stolen by the National League. Finally on some specific date in 1903, both leagues realized that there would someday be a butt-ton of money to be made by selling national broadcasting rights, and so the two leagues staged an end-of-season exhibition between their top two teams (the "Boston Americans" and the Pirates). Boston won the series five games to three, largely because of the stellar pitching of a man named Cy "Award" Young. This was the last time the New York Yankees failed to appear in the postseason, as far as anyone remembers. The National League was forced to admit that the American League was legitimate, and they vowed to return and bunt even more in the next year's World Series.
From 1903-1968, both leagues determined who would participate in the World Series via the highly complicated method of seeing which team had the best winning record in each league. This can be a little difficult to understand, so it's worth breaking it down further: at the end of the regular season, the first-place team in the American League would face the first-place team in the National League to see who would be determined "World Champions." (And here, "World" is used in the sense of "excluding every other country in the world except the United Sates of America and sometimes parts of Canada.") If that system still doesn't seem to make sense, don't worry too much about it, because it was done away with in 1969, probably as a direct result of marijuana and Jimi Hendrix.
In 1969, both leagues split into two divisions, an East Division and a West Division, thus giving fans geographically-based reasons to hate certain teams. Now, for example, a fan of the Oakland A's could hate the New York Yankees because they were in an entirely different division, and also because they still hadn't quit being the Yankees. It also changed the nature of the postseason, which was a good thing for MLB's bottom line. In the new format, the first place teams in each of the divisions would face each other in a best-of-five games "League Championship Series," and the two winners of that series would go on to play in the best-of-seven games World Series. This meant adding an extra three-to-five games to the postseason schedule, which meant more tickets, more hot dogs, more sponsorships, more broadcasting fees, and most importantly for fans, more reasons to put off raking the lawn until Thanksgiving.
Just a few years later, in 1971, the MLB made a revolutionary decision to schedule some of the World Series games at night. Prior to that decision, you could only attend World Series games in the afternoon, and -- judging by some of this old footage I'm watching -- only if you were a middle-aged man who could wear a coat and tie while smoking a pipe. The first World Series night game was played at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, with the Pirates taking on the Orioles. It was a horrible experience for everyone at first, until someone suggested in the fourth inning, "I wonder if maybe we should turn on the stadium lights?"
The baseball world was content with this arrangement until 1985, when someone whose name escapes me noticed the situation and said, "Hey! Why play a best-of-five series when you can play a best-of-seven series in the League Championship?" The decision-makers of MLB immediately threw down their rakes and agreed that this was a spectacular idea, and ever since 1985 the League Championship series has been a best-of-seven games contest.
This new arrangement lasted for almost a decade, until 1994 when the MLB, acting on the universally-recognized male truth that "if you've got a good thing working, you should probably dick around with it some more," decided to further split the leagues into three divisions. Now there would be an East, West and Central division in each league. This was judged to be a good idea until it was pointed out by Larry in Accounting that the postseason format was now all shot to hell. Instead of having two division winners who could play in the League Championship Series, there would be three division winners, thus creating some very awkward "third wheel" scenarios in which one of the teams would just have to hang around, order more beers, make excuses to go to the bathroom, and mutter "cripes, get a room already."
Thus the Wild Card was introduced. After the three division winners were determined, the team with the next best winning record in the league would be given a shot at playing against the best of the division winners in the newly-minted, best-of-five games "League Division Series." If you will just take a moment to notice at this point that the initials here are LDS, you'll be close to catching the deeper meaning involved. Of course, after all of the details were worked out and this increasingly-complicated system was finally in place, the players decided to go on strike, and there was no postseason in 1994, which leads us to another universally-recognized male truth: "if you tinker with it too much, it always breaks the first time."
With the postseason now extended to as many as 41 extra games, the powers that ML-Be finally kicked back, relaxed, watched the dollars come pouring in, and decided that this was a good time to stop messing with the playoff system for good. Ha! As if! Rather, in 2012, a second Wild Card spot was added, and now the two Wild Card teams face each other in a one-game playoff for the chance to get into the League Division Series, because honestly, at this point, why the hell not? And so that is where we find ourselves today, tearing into a sixth bag of Spicy Buffalo Combos, coming to grips with the possibility that the fifth-best team in either league could take home a World Series title at the end of the season (and the fact that we can't smoke pipes at the ballpark anymore).
The future of the postseason is probably far from settled. Eventually, the League Division Series will be extended to a best-of-seven format, the Wild Card game will become a best-of-three series instead of a single-elimination game, and more one-and-done Wild Card spots will be added until finally, as the madness fully sets in, we will all realize that the postseason has ballooned into a separate, 162-game season on its own, and we will see the absurdity for what it is.
But at least we won't be raking any damned leaves.