SAN FRANCISCO -- Commissioner Bud Selig was a history major at the University of Wisconsin, and he quickly describes himself as a traditionalist. Even a traditionalist, however, has to understand the need for change, which is evident as Selig now carries an iPad with him so he can watch Major League Baseball from whatever venue he may be visiting. And in his role as Commissioner, Selig has overseen major changes in the sport he has worshipped since his preschool days.
In 1994, the Major Leagues were realigned from two to three divisions and a Wild Card was added to each league. Four years later, the Brewers team Selig once owned was moved from the American League to the National League to keep an even number (16 in the NL, 14 in the AL) in each after the Rays and D-backs joined as expansion teams. That worked. So, here he goes again. Next year, the leagues are going to realign again, with Houston moving over to the AL so that each will have three five-team divisions, and the Interleague games introduced under Selig's guidance in 1997 will now be a regular part of the MLB schedule. But first there is this October. Selig and the rest of baseball's hierarchy on both the players' and owners' sides decided if one Wild Card was a success, they might as well add a second Wild Card in each league this year, create an elimination game for the two Wild Cards, and let the winner of each of those two games advance into the Division Series against the team from each league with the best record. "So what do you think?" Selig asked the other day. "Well," came the reply, "you always say George W. [Bush] and I were your two biggest critics when you added the Wild Card initially. Guess our prediction of disaster was a bit overstated. This time, I'll just sit back and watch." Got to admit, it has been worth seeing. It's been just what Selig so often stresses he wants in baseball. "Competitive balance," he said, "is what we are talking about. This has worked out so well." Television ratings have been up. Stadiums have sold out. And underdogs have had success. Detroit, which won the AL Central with 88 regular-season wins (tied for the 11th most wins among the 30 Major League teams) disposed of AL West champion Oakland in the ALDS, and swept the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series. Next stop, the World Series, which opens in the National League city on Wednesday night. The NL city will be either San Francisco or St. Louis. Those two teams still have an NLCS to decide. The Giants pulled out a 5-0 victory on Friday night to stay alive, and they now trail the Cardinals, 3-2, with the rest of the series headed to AT&T Park. Think of what could be if St. Louis manages to get that one more victory it needs to earn the chance to defend the World Series championship it won a year ago. St. Louis was the team that matched Detroit for 11th in the regular season. But the Cardinals didn't win their division. They are where they are on a hall pass. They were the second NL Wild Card. They stunned Atlanta, the No. 1 NL Wild Card, in that win-or-go-home showdown, and stunned Washington, which had a Major League-best 98 regular-season wins, in the NL Division Series, overcoming a 6-0 deficit in the deciding Game 5 for a 9-7 win. Never before had a team overcome a five-run deficit -- let alone six runs -- in a postseason elimination game. And if the Giants manage to win two more games to get the spot against Detroit on Wednesday, they did it after winning 94 regular-season games, just like their Bay Area neighbor, Oakland. "This is the manifestation of competitive balance," said Selig. "This is so good for the game." Good for the competitive balance not only on the field, but at the bank. The Yankees, who have baseball's biggest payroll again, were slapped down by Detroit, which is tied for fifth. San Francisco is eighth in the payroll standings, and St. Louis ninth. More telling is that Philadelphia, Boston and the Los Angeles Angels, which ranked second, third and fourth, respectively, didn't even make the postseason. This comes on the heels of a 2011 World Series in which the Cardinals, who ranked 11th in payroll, knocked off Texas, which ranked 13th. In fact, since the turn of the century, only once has baseball's highest-paid team won a World Series -- the Yankees in 2009. Only two other times did they even get to the World Series. The Yankees lost to the Florida Marlins, whose payroll ranked 25th, in 2003, and to Arizona, with a payroll that ranked eighth, in 2001. The Marlins had the second-lowest payroll of a World Series competitor this century. Tampa Bay ranked 29th in payroll in '08, when it lost to Philadelphia, which ranked 12th. "When you see teams having that kind of success it creates hopes in a lot of cities," said Selig. "It speaks to the fact that there is a chance for any team." It's a lot like the Wild Card. It's not merely a device to add an extra round to the playoffs. In baseball, the Wild Card is a legitimate postseason challenge. Just last year, St. Louis, the NL Wild Card, won a World Series. Wild Cards ran off three titles in a row with the Angels in 2002 (beating wild-card San Francisco in the World Series), the Marlins in '03, and the Red Sox in '04. And there have been five Wild Cards in this century that have been the World Series loser -- the Mets in '00, San Francisco in '02, Houston in '05, Detroit in '06 and Colorado in '07. "You want every fan to have hope at the start of Spring Training, and it's not bad if they have hope in August and September, as well," said Selig. "This is as good as it gets." Hard to argue with him based off way things have worked out.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.