A great thing about baseball--it's never over till it's over. Even with the regular season behind us, the Major League Baseball Playoffs hold the promise of fierce and dramatic competition. You can never know when your baseball tickets will buy you a chance to witness history--take one example from the 2005 postseason: the sellout crowd in the stands for Game 4 of Division Series between Houston and Atlanta got the equivalent of two games for the price of one: a record-setting 18 innings of heart-stopping, and for the Braves, one out away from a stay-alive victory in the 9th inning, heartbreaking, baseball at its finest!
Then the Playoffs contenders were down to four. Who were you rooting for--the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, wanting to go all the way as they did in 2002? The Chicago White Sox, whose World Series drought went back even farther than the once 'cursed' Boston Red Sox' did? The Houston Astros seeking their first ever chance at the Series? Or the St. Louis Cardinals with the best record in the game for 2005, fired up to avenge being swept by the American League in the World Series of 2004? No matter which one, getting ahold of your own tickets was a way to see some baseball history for yourself.
Postseason thrills are nothing new--Who can forget the playoffs of 2004? In the American League, the contestants were teams who had been bitter rivals for decades: the Boston Red Sox, who had won five previous World Series titles, the last one in 1918, and the New York Yankees, who had snatched up baseball's original icon, Babe Ruth, from the Boston franchise way back then. This transaction not only led to Yankee Stadium's becoming 'the House that Ruth Built' but, many believed, left the Red Sox subject to 'the Curse of the Bambino,' blocking any chance of their gaining another World Series championship. The curse definitely seemed to be in effect as the Yankees won Games 1, 2, and 3, and the Red Sox were three outs away from losing the fourth when they battled back to win that game, and then three more, a comeback never before achieved in a post-season series.
The 2004 National League playoff series was an amazingly balanced tug-of-war between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros. As the Baseball Almanac notes, 'heading into the decisive Game 7, both teams had exactly the same batting average at .246, the same number of runs scored at twenty-nine apiece, and the exact same ERA at 4.80.' In the end, victory fell to the Cardinals, and it was time for fans to scramble for tickets to see history in the making at Busch Stadium and Fenway Park.
The run-up to baseball's World Series has not always been so breathless. From 1903 to 1968, only two Major League teams each year could aspire to post-season play. If one team dominated each league, the World Series combatants could be known as early as July, and the rest of the teams just had to tough it out. All of that changed in 1969, when Major League Baseball split both the National League and the American League into two divisions.
In 1969, the playoffs were not particularly exciting, apart from their novelty. The New York Mets, who had won an exciting National League East race over the favored Chicago Cubs, swept the Atlanta Braves of the West in three games. The Baltimore Orioles of the American League East did the same to their West counterparts, the Minnesota Twins. At least there was a bit more drama about who was going to play in the World Series.
The best-of-five format for the division playoffs held sway until 1985, when the hunger for more baseball on television led to an expansion to a best-of-seven series. A further, and very welcome, increase in the postseason dramatics came about when the Major Leagues realigned their divisions in 1995. With three divisions in place, a Wild Card spot had to be created.
With two rounds of playoffs, the Division Series became a best-of-five series again, and the League Championship Series (LCS) remained a best-of-seven series. With four teams from each league in contention for the World Series, the fan base (and the number of tickets available) for the playoffs doubled. Unlike the NBA playoffs and the NCAA Basketball Championship, the first round does not pit a low-seeded team against a high-seeded opponent. Beginning with the 1996 Baltimore Orioles, at least 10 Wild Card teams have won at one or more rounds of playoffs, and the 1997 and 2003 Florida Marlins won the World Series from the Wild Card spot. The 2002 World Series pitted both Wild Card teams against each other, with the Anaheim Angels defeating the San Francisco Giants.
Now that a bit of parity is starting to show itself during the baseball season, as many as 20 teams can be in the Wild Card race as late as August. The ongoing increase in fan interest, television ratings and ticket sales stems in part from the expanded playoff series and the prolonged nurturing of the hopes of Major League Baseball teams and their fans.
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