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Rubino: Easier now to get shot at World Series, tougher to win it


Remember when big-league baseball's regular season meant something? Really meant something?

Remember when to get to the World Series a team had to have the best record in its league?

Before ultra-expansion. Before divisions. Before wild cards. Before Bud.

Sixteen teams, eight in each league. Then 20 teams, 10 in each league. Regular season's best in each league go at it for the brass ring. Fair and square. Simple and pure.

And a long time ago. Practically prehistoric.

It's been 45 years since the team with the best record in the National League and the team with the best record in the American League automatically met, with no further ado, in the World Series. If you recall that seven-game drama in which Mickey Lolich and the Detroit Tigers beat Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals, well, you're probably old. You're certainly no spring chicken.

Fast forward to today. The defending champion Giants, winding down a lost-cause season, are in New York to play the Yankees, who are fighting for their playoff lives, desperately trying to finish at a level of excellence that would make them the fifth-best team in the American League.

If the Yankees do that and become the second AL wild-card team, they're in the postseason, the Series sweepstakes, and anything is possible, even a 28th title.

Don't worry. This isn't a baseball-loving geezer pining for the purity and glory of the good old days. This is a baseball-loving geezer asking an honest question: Was it more difficult, more honorable, to win the World Series back in the day?

The short answer: Yes and no.

Here is the longer answer. Fellow geezers might not like it.

Of course it was difficult to win a World Series pre-1969 (when divisional play began) because a team had to finish with the best regular-season record in its league to play in the Series. Nobody else got the chance. The postseason didn't consist of second- or third-place teams scrambling in elimination series.

The World Series was the postseason, all of it. No divisions within the leagues, just the leagues. Wild cards? That was something you used to spice up a poker game, not a baseball season. Survival of the fittest. Darwinian. You had to be first. Very American.

Without divisions or wild cards, teams such as the 1954 Yankees (103 wins), the 1961 Detroit Tigers (101 wins) and the 1962 Los Angeles Dodgers (101 wins), among other big winners in the regular season, were left out in the autumnal chill. Not first in your league? Tough. Go work your offseason job and wait till next year.

But since league championship series began in 1969 with two division winners in each league playing against each other for the right to go to the Fall Classic, and now with three division champs and two wild cards going at it in an extended postseason that has gotten to the point where a World Series hero might be called Mr. November, there is undeniably a certain amount of dilution.

Teams such as the 1987 Minnesota Twins (85 wins, fifth-best in the AL), the 2000 Yankees (also fifth-best in the AL) and the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals (fifth-best in the NL), among other middling regular-season teams, have won the World Series.

On the other hand, once in the postseason, those teams beat supposedly better teams, so how middling could they have been?

So what if second-, third-, fourth- or fifth-best regular-season teams prevail when given another chance? What's more American than taking advantage of another chance in the land of opportunity?

True, much of baseball's postseason evolution has to do with common-sense business principles and basic practicality. With 15 teams in each league, interest in most would wane by mid-August, or earlier in some cases, if postseason berths went only to the team with the best record in the AL and the team with the best record in the NL.

The expanded postseason may be manipulative, somewhat arbitrary and no doubt greed-motivated, but it manufactures guaranteed excitement.

Yes, back in the old days, getting a shot at a World Series was awfully tough, winning it was honorable, and the process was pure and logical.

Winning it nowadays means going through a simultaneously more complex and contrived process, but it's also a process that's part endurance contest, part war of attrition. It's entertainment, and almost invariably first-rate entertainment at that.

It may not be pretty, and it's certainly not pure. But it's tougher to win a World Series today than it was back in the day.

Robert Rubino can be reached at RobertoRubino@comcast.net.