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MLB Wild-Card Games Are the Most Cruel, Devastating, and Wonderful Events in Sports

Baseball is a game of averages, except when it annually pits teams in intentionally fluky, anxiety-inducing, winner-take-all brawls

One player from each 2017 MLB wild-card team Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What do you look for in a baseball season?

2017 MLB Playoffs

Is it long and lazy summer afternoons? Is it the opportunity to yell about how Aaron Judge is the biggest and best (or else the biggest and very worst) baseball player ever to walk the earth? Is it the six-month jockeying for batting titles, Cy Young Awards, and MVP trophies? How about the joy of watching young phenoms try their best to bring glory to your hometown before they reach the end of their rookie contracts and get swallowed up by the Pinstriped Pit of Despair? Or is it the bobbleheads that you seek? Soft pretzels? Shirseys? OK, how about this one: Are you looking for … bizarro, devastating, self-antithetical chaos?

If you, like me, enjoy having your blood pressure rise until you can feel your heartbeat in your eyeballs and see your whole life and every well-mowed lawn design you’ve ever glimpsed pass before you, allow me to offer my congratulations: We’ve once again managed to make it around the sun to the blessed two-day basebrawl known as the AL and NL wild-card games.

On Tuesday, the Yankees and Twins will take part in this ulcer-inducing, single-game-elimination limbo, followed by the Diamondbacks and Rockies on Wednesday night. Two of those fan bases, having watched their teams maneuver here since the first week of April, will now watch those teams’ hopes and dreams be determined by three-ish hours of ball-hurling and smacking in enemy territory. All four 2017 wild-card teams make for compelling contestants, which is to say that in a perfect world they probably deserve better. The Twins lost 103 games in 2016 and somehow made it to this year’s postseason, which is either a redemption tale for the ages or simple voodoo magic. The Diamondbacks had the third-best record in the National League as well as the misfortune of sharing a division with the 104-win Dodgers. The Yankees had a run differential of plus-198 and made this guy their unofficial mascot; the Rockies have Charlie Blackmon.

Baseball might not be your favorite sport, and that is fine. But even if another game holds your heart, and even if you don’t give a hoot about which boys in pajamas get to bathe in Miller Lite foam at the end of the month, you might consider turning your attention to the wild-card clashes, which are as high-stakes, entertaining, and sadistic as any event in sports.

Consider the big four American leagues. The stakes in football are always high. The NBA and NHL have long seasons, too, but not one hundred and sixty-freaking-two games long. Major League Baseball spends six months polishing everything into soft-edged, mathematically fortified averages and then decides the fate of four teams in what amounts to an intentional fluke.

The MLB wild-card matchups stand alone among sporting events because they break the natural rules of their game—gnawing on them, spitting them out, leaving them slobbery and mushed up for someone to step in on their way to work later—in a way that no other sport’s playoff structure dares to. Baseball is fundamentally a game of averages, seasons stretching out like the neck flesh of your average viewer, and functions under the logic that a 162-game slate is the only way to generate enough data to really, truly, officially distinguish who is good and who isn’t. The postseason makes more room for chaos; this is why the team with the best regular-season record isn’t automatically handed the Commissioner’s Trophy. But at its core, baseball favors hard-fought means and totals over randomness, even in the postseason, where teams participate in five- or seven-game series.

Except, of course, in these wild-card games.

The modern wild-card format—featuring nine (or, heaven help you, more) innings of winner-takes-all baseball—is heartlessly arbitrary. Pitcher having a bad day? Whoops, sorry, no more baseball for your team. Jittery second baseman collides with shortstop? Guess that’ll be the end of the season. It is designed to breed anxiety, inspire future stadium statues, cause Gatorade cooler destruction, and prompt generation-long grudges against whichever sorry player gets caught holding the bag.

It is also enthusiastically heretical toward the very essence of baseball. And my god, it is wonderful.