I’m going to fill you in on a little secret: You know those “wild card standings” that get shown on MLB Network 15 times a day? They don’t exist. They’re made-up. They’re a mathematician’s sorcery.
And yet, by mid-August it’s the only “race” that anyone seems to care about among baseball scribes and fans.
It’s the wild card race, and a lot of other baseball realities I see in 2019 that make me think back to the last “pure” year in major league baseball. That would, of course, be 1968.
After 1968, a lot of things changed. Not all for the better.
If you’re not yet 50 years old, you’re going to need an education on 1968. I turned 12 in that year, and I remember it almost as if it was yesterday.
There were no wild card playoff entries then. There were only two divisions in baseball, one called the American League and the other called the National League. The entire MLB world, in fact, consisted of 20 teams -- 10 in the AL and 10 in the NL -- the epitome of perfection.
It was easy to know which teams were going to go to the World Series: the winningest team in the American League and the winningest team in the National League. No playoffs. No possibility existed for a team that won more than 100 games to get upset by a team that only won 87. So it was a fairer setup.
Call me a sorehead, call me an antique, but it was all so simple then, wasn’t it.
There wasn’t a wild card race in ‘68; in fact, there wasn’t much of a race at all. In the American League, the Detroit Tigers, behind a 31-win effort from Denny McLain, won the pennant by 12 games over their nearest rivals. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals, behind the incredible Bob Gibson who posted a 1.12 earned run average, won the pennant by nine games.
Here’s another thing about 1968 that you’ll never find re-created again. There were no interleague games that year. Nobody in the AL played a regular season game against anybody from the NL, and vice versa. So when the Tigers and the Cardinals prepared to battle, mystery was at a premium.
To make your predictions, you had nothing tangible to go by. It was anyone’s guess which was the better team. It was anyone’s guess, in fact, which was the better league. Did Detroit’s 103 wins in the AL mean more than the Cardinals’ 97 in the NL? Who knew, until they went head-to-head. And then there was McLain versus Gibson. Who was really better?
As it turned out, Gibson was better, at least in the World Series. McLain, many say, wore himself out in the regular season by marching toward his 31 victories. Gibson was fresher.
The Cardinals won three of the first four games of the Series. The hero, ultimately, was portly Detroit pitcher Mickey Lolich, as the Tigers eventually defeated the Cards four games to three.
After 1968, baseball made some big changes.
In 1969, two more teams were added to the AL and the NL, and each league was divided into East and West divisions. Today, of course, there are three divisions and a total of 30 teams.
In 1973, the designated hitter rule was added in the American League, which took some strategy out of the game but added more offensive production. The DH rule confused many of the new DH hitters. The first recorded designated hitter, New York’s Ron Blomberg, reportedly asked one of the team’s coaches, Elston Howard, what he should do.
“Go hit and then sit down,” Howard answered.
The most important change immediately following 1968 dealt with pitchers. Pitchers dominated the league in an amazing way that year when the mound was 15 inches high (it was lowered to 10 inches in ‘69). The composite batting average for major league teams was a paltry .237. And the composite pitcher ERA was 2.98.
Think of it. The typical pitcher in 1968 had an ERA of under three.
The AL batting title went to Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski. And he barely cracked .300, finishing at .301.
No, there has not been anything like 1968 in the last half century. I’ve come across one author who wrote a book about it, and he called it “the end of baseball’s golden age.”
I don’t know if that’s true. But in 2019, as the keepers of major league baseball worry that the game is losing its appeal, the tendency is to continue tinkering with the rules to titillate the fans -- adding more playoff teams, adding more home runs, and so on.
What comes next is anyone’s guess. But hats off to 1968. They don’t make ‘em like that any more.