With the Los Angeles Dodgers and Giants separated by only a half-game in the National League West standings heading into the second half, I find myself hearing Russ Hodges’ unforgettable call of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” crackling through a radio somewhere in the recesses of my mind. Granted, we still have a ways to go — the Giants have 76 games left, the Dodgers 75 — but it was hard to not romanticize about the prospect of another historic finish when the rivals met up for a three-game set at China Basin a couple weeks ago.
And this year’s race has even more intrigue now that Bud Selig has added a second wild card and a one-game round with the wild cards to the playoff mix, reviving the importance of the division race. While the advent of the wild card in 1994 certainly brought its own excitement, it also destroyed the concept of the pennant race. In the wild-card era, Thomson’s home run would have quickly faded from fans’ memories, or as Bob Costas put it in his book “Fair Ball,” “The Giants win the pennant! The Dodgers win the wild card,” just wouldn’t have the same ring as Hodges’ indelible call.
The evidence came in 1996 when the Dodgers and San Diego Padres were tied for first going into the final game of the season. The drama of a one-game showdown for the division crown was sapped by the fact that the loser was guaranteed a wild-card berth. Does anyone remember this game for anything other than what it wasn’t?
But if the Giants and Dodgers (or Arizona Diamondbacks) are tied on the last day of the season this year, the game will mean a heck of a lot more because the teams face the prospect of getting dumped into a one-and-done wild-card showdown. Imagine having to face R.A. Dickey (let’s assume his knuckleball is still dancing around the world) or Stephen Strasburg (forget about that pitch count for a second) in a single, must-win game, and even if the Giants prevailed, it would mean Matt Cain would likely be unavailable for a Game 1 duel in the Division Series against an ace like Clayton Kershaw or Johnny Cueto.
Moreover, the division winner will be awarded the opportunity to set its rotation and the benefit of likely sending out its ace twice in a best-of-five game series.
This is an enormous shift from what we had over the past 17 seasons, where winning the division was less important than being hot going into the playoffs. In fact, it often seemed like the wild-card team had the edge in the postseason because they benefited from playing playoff-like baseball for weeks down the stretch, while division winners were on cruise control waiting for October. Look at the Cardinals last year, the Red Sox in ’04 and the Marlins in ’03 and ’97; once they clinched wild-card berths, they were on even footing with the three division winners in their respective leagues even though they finished second in the 162-game horse race.
So, if the Giants and Dodgers are tied on the last day of the season this year and Buster Posey or Panda smacks a walk-off at Chavez Ravine, a call like, “The Giants win the West, the Dodgers are relegated to the wild-card game” still won’t capture the magic of Hodges’ words from 1951, but at least it makes the game worth watching.
Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org