As this final week of the regular season dawns, with the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants fighting one another for first place, you will hear a lot about 1951 and 1962. You will not hear as much about 1996, but you should.
It is the season that could come back to haunt the Dodgers, 25 years later.
If the Dodgers can win two more games than the Giants this week, the two teams would play a tiebreaker for the National League West championship. If San Francisco wins the division, the Dodgers’ postseason could be limited to one game, in part because of the indifference they showed to one particular game in 1996.
The Dodgers and Giants played tiebreakers in 1951 and 1962, but both times for the league championship. The term “postseason” had not been invented. There were two leagues, and the winner of each league advanced to the World Series.
In 1969, leagues split into two divisions, and the league championship series was born. In 1994, leagues split into three divisions, and the wild card was born — one in each league, so as to complete an eight-team postseason field.
In 1996, the Dodgers and San Diego Padres entered the final day of the regular season tied atop the NL West. The teams would play one another at Dodger Stadium, but there would be no great meaning in the result. The winner would be NL West champion and the loser would be the wild card, but both teams would advance to a five-game division series.
It should have been a day of drama, a fantastic finale to the regular season. It felt more like the finale of the Cactus League.
“Maybe the winner can get a bowl of fruit or something,” Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza said then.
The Dodgers started their best pitcher, Ramon Martinez, but only in a one-inning tuneup for Game 1 of their division series three days later. The Padres started Bob Tewksbury, who would not be one of the nine pitchers they used in their division series. The Padres won the game.
“Winning the first round of the playoffs is more important,” Dodgers pitcher Mark Guthrie said then. He added: “No one will remember who won the division after the first round.”
The Dodgers and Padres both were swept out of the first round, so the memories of ’96 are neither warm nor fuzzy anywhere in Southern California. But Major League Baseball officials had discovered the unintended consequence of the wild card, the risk that what would have been a thrilling two-team battle for a division title could be neutered if both teams would be bound for postseason play anyway.
The next time MLB expanded its postseason format, the league ensured that scenario could never repeat itself. In 2012, MLB added a second wild card in each league. The division winners would advance directly to the division series. The wild-card teams — no matter how many games they won — would be promised a one-game playoff, nothing more.
The Dodgers have won 100. So far.
“The one weakness we had in the previous plan was that you didn’t reward teams enough for winning your division,” then-commissioner Bud Selig told The Times in 2012. “That was a fair criticism. I accept that.
“If you don’t want to be in a one-game playoff, then win your division.”
In fairness, this is not a recurring dilemma. Either the Dodgers or Giants will become only the second team in 20 years to win 100 games but not win their division. The 2018 New York Yankees won 100, finished second to the Boston Red Sox in the American League East, then beat the Oakland Athletics in the wild-card game — and then lost to the Red Sox in the division series.
And this playoff system might not extend beyond this year. The collective bargaining agreement expires in December, and owners have expressed interest in expanding the postseason. In the pandemic playoffs last year, MLB invited 16 teams, with every team guaranteed at least a best-of-three series. In a previous proposal for a 14-team field, as first reported by the New York Post, every team also would be guaranteed at least a best-of-three series.
Under the old system, this week still would have been ripe for debate, about how hard the Dodgers and Giants should be fighting to win the division and avoid opening the playoffs against the Milwaukee Brewers, or whether the Dodgers and Giants should worry less about the opening opponent and more about arranging their postseason pitching rotation just the way they want.
That’s really why this week is crazy. The St. Louis Cardinals have won 16 consecutive games, and still they have won 15 fewer games than the Giants, 13 fewer than the Dodgers. If the playoffs were seeded, the Cardinals would be some other team’s problem.
Under the old format, the Cardinals would not even be in the playoffs. Under this format, they can kick back and relax this week. The Dodgers and Giants can sweat all week, and the team that does not win the division will find itself facing St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright, rested and ready. That’s some devil magic right there.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.