The enduring term "pennant race" has really been a misnomer for the past 40 years, ever since divisional play dictated that first-place teams needed to do additional work to obtain the league-title flag.
But by any name, nothing excites a fan like good, tight competition down the stretch. And with the advent of expanded playoffs and wild-card teams, there are now eight potential "pennant" races for the price of one.
Alas, most of them have fizzled out this year. With three weeks to go, the most compelling divisional race is in the National League West. The torrid Rockies, riding the same sort of otherworldly momentum that took them into the World Series two years ago, crept within two games of the Dodgers heading into the weekend.
But the wild card, which has done so much since its inception in 1994 (but not implemented until '95 because of the strike) to provide September suspense, might actually detract from the drama in this case.
With the Rockies comfortably in control of the wild card, barring a surge by the Giants (certainly not out of the realm of possibility, especially if Tim Lincecum's back issues are temporary), the loser of the Dodgers-Rockies showdown will still cruise into the postseason. And recent history has shown that wild-card teams thrive in October -- four titles, most recently by the 2004 Red Sox, and numerous runner-up finishes.
In fact, there is a school of thought that the wild-card teams should have a harder route to the World Series. In a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, Bob Costas proposed that the first round of the playoffs be expanded from five games to seven, but the wild-card teams get just two of them at home.
"The whole idea is that there should be an equal chance for a division winner," Costas said. "The wild-card team doesn't deserve it because it hasn't qualified for an equal chance over 162 games."
I don't necessarily agree, because in some instances the wild-card team has a superior record to one (or even both) of the other division winners. Last year, for instance, the AL wild card Red Sox, with 95 wins, surpassed the 89 wins of the AL Central champion White Sox; and the NL wild card Brewers, with 90 wins, surpassed the 84 wins of the NL West champion Dodgers.
I don't think the Red Sox should have been penalized with diminished home games had they met the White Sox in the ALCS just because they happened to be in a tougher division. I vote to leave it the way it is.
The Red Sox again have control of the AL wild card, but the Rangers are hanging around, impressively. The cool Web site coolstandings.com, which calculates each team's playoff chances by simulating the rest of the season's games millions of times, have the Rangers as the only current non-playoff team with a fighting chance of sneaking in.
Heading into the weekend, they were given a 34.4 percent chance of making the postseason, compared to 9.3 percent for the Twins (second in the AL Central), 9.4 percent for Florida (second in the NL East), 0.8 percent for the Cubs (second in the NL Central) and 10.2 percent for the Giants (second in the wild card, third in the NL West).
In other words, the Cardinals (99.8 percent), Yankees (99.1 percent) and Dodgers (98 percent) are locks; the Phillies (93.2 percent), Angels (88.4 percent), Rockies (87.4 percent) and Tigers (85.6 percent) are close to locks; and the Red Sox (77.1 percent) are sitting pretty.
So much for the pennant races that once loomed so promisingly. It was just Aug. 4 that the Cubs and Cardinals were in a dead heat in the NL Central. It was just July 20 that the Yankees and Red Sox were in a dead heat in the AL East, with the Rays breathing down both their necks. And the Giants and Rockies went into September in a flat-footed tie.
The Tigers once seemed destined to be pushed harder by the Twins and White Sox, while the Marlins were definitely in the Phillies' heads after sweeping them in early August.
I'm still hoping that the Giants turn the NL West/wild-card race into a three-team, two-survivors showdown. And I'd love to see the Rangers make the Red Sox sweat down the stretch, just for the fireworks. Maybe the Marlins and Twins still have a run left in them.
But I'm afraid the bulk of the drama will have to come in the postseason. That hasn't gone well lately. The past five World Series have gone five, four, five, four and four games. We need a good, old-fashioned seven-game series -- even if it's two wild-card teams.