Warming up to the wild card

My opposition to the wild-card format declines with proportion to how many games my favorite teams are out of first place. The further out they fall, the more I like it.

Which is not to say that I'm a fanatic about the wild card. Almost a decade after baseball changed the format, I'm still less enthusiastic about second-place teams playing in the World Series than I am about the Yankees playing in the World Series (if the Yankees were ever to win the World Series as a wild-card entrant, I think I would have to leave the country).

At this stage in baseball history, though, I'm afraid the wild card is probably a necessary evil, like dancing groundskeepers.

The fact is, with 30 teams and multiple divisions, your playoff hopes are just a matter of location, location, location without the wild card. Win 102 games in the National League West as the Giants did in 1993? Tough. You should have been in the NL East that season, where 102 wins would have won the division by five games.

Was it fair that the Giants stayed home in October with 102 wins while a team in the same league advanced to the postseason with five fewer victories? No, but nobody questioned the inequity of that playoff format at the time (well, at least nobody outside of the Bay Area) because we were all too busy writing about how we would never see such an exciting pennant race again.

And then the very first year of the wild card, we saw an even more dramatic race between the Mariners and the Angels. That ended in a one-game playoff, and we've had two more such playoffs since then.

Besides, it's not like the wild card lets undeserving teams slip in through the back door. It might be open, but the wild-card team usually barges in through the front door, dragging mud into the house and shouting, "Wilma, I'm home!'' The Angels won 99 games last year. Only one other world champion in the past 16 years has won more games than that. It's not the wild-card teams that look as suspect as Dan Ackroyd's presence in the "We Are the World'' video, it's usually one of the other teams.

But you know something? No one notices because those other teams have fresh division championships on their resume. And that's another benefit of the wild card, the most important benefit. It allows a three-division alignment.

People suggest realigning the divisions by payroll and letting large-revenue teams fight it out in one division while the Kansas Citys of the world battle in another. But baseball effectively did that already by dividing into three divisions per league. The teams with the most money are located in the East and West divisions while the poor huddled masses are stuck in the Central divisions.

That's what makes all the difference. The Twins were the best story in baseball last year by going from the contraction list to three wins from the World Series, and they did it because they were in the AL Central. Had they played in the other two divisions, they would have finished at least 10 games out of first place and finished out of the wild card by five games.

In other words, the three-division format made last year's wonderful Twins story possible. And the wild card made the Central Division possible.

There is talk of adding a second wild-card team in the future, but I hope not. The wild card provides some excellent benefits, but there is no need to ruin things. The NFL, NHL and NBA have all expanded their playoffs to the point where their postseasons are less exclusive than Costco.

Baseball, meanwhile, has the balance just about right.

Although I might change my mind depending on how tonight's games turn out.

Boxscore line of the week

So what are the odds of this? The Cubs and the White Sox both in first place the same day in September and the Cubs starter getting yanked that night with a no-hitter going. It happened last week, of course, when Matt Clement didn't allow a hit the first five innings against the Expos, then walked the first three batters in the sixth and getting the hook. His award-winning line:

5 IP, 0 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 5 BB, 5 K

Mark Guthrie took over for Clement, walked the next two batters and the Cubs went on to lose and fall out of first place.

From left field

Our thoughts go out to one of our favorite people in baseball, Minnesota Twins third base coach Al Newman, who is recovering from a brain hemorrhage last week. Newmie, whose biggest claim to fame is going the final six seasons of his career without hitting a home run, is an intelligent, funny man and we wish him the speediest recovering possible. . . . The last time Greg Maddux didn't win 15 games in a season (1987), Frank Tanana and Floyd Bannister did. . . . Rough day for Minnesota outfielders Sunday. In a 5-3 victory, Twins centerfielder Dustan Mohr caught a flyball after it bounced off the forehead of rightfielder Mike Ryan for a bizarre 9-8 putout. "Tough way to get on Web Gems," manager Ron Gardenhire told reporters. It was Ryan's second assist of the season but first with his skull. The play was officially recorded this way in the play-by-play summary: "Peralta flied out to Mohr (assist by Ryan). To make matters worse, Torii Hunter replaced the injured Ryan - and was hit with a pitch the next inning. ... Were the 22 games the Montreal Expos played in Montreal a good idea? The Expos averaged 14,222 fans per game in San Juan and are averaging 11,896 fans in Montreal. But would they have averaged more fans at home had they been better promoted, been able to play an entire home schedule and likely stayed in the playoff hunt longer? We'll never know but it's not like a 14,222-fan average in Puerto Rico is anything to get excited about -- the Brewers and Pirate are drawing more fans. ... Randall Simon's $432 fine for hitting the Italian Sausage is less than what Alex Rodriguez earns per pitch. His purchase of 330 Italian Sausages for Milwaukee fans likely cost him an additional $1,150. ... Looking for a good book to pass the time between games during the pennant chase? Find a copy of "The Giants and Dodgers: Four Cities, Two Teams, One Rivalry" by Andrew Goldblatt, which gives a nice detailed history of baseball's best rivalry from its days in New York to the modern era in California. ...

Win Blake Stein's Money

This week's category is Two Degrees of Warren Spahn.

Question: Which pitcher was a teammate of Spahn's with the Milwaukee Braves and still was pitching in the majors when Maddux was a rookie in 1987?

Answer: Phil Niekro, who was with the Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves in 1987.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.