I’ve been either playing or following the game of baseball for over 60 years and have watched the game make plenty of changes—some for the good of the game and others probably for the monetary advantage of the major league owners.

I remember growing up when there were only eight teams in both the National and American Leagues and many of the statistics kept today weren’t even thought of back in the 1950’s and 1960’s before the Computer Era.

There was no such thing as divisions, or playoffs—unless two teams were tied for first place after the final game of the regular season. The World Series generally was over at this time of October.

And then from 1960 until now the major leagues nearly doubled in the number of franchises with 16 in the National League and 14 in the American League. Both leagues become equal with 15 thanks to the Houston Astros’ new owner Jim Crane giving in to the wishes of Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig last summer.

The major leagues went to three divisions and a playoff system to determine the two teams that would meet for the World Series. And if that didn’t extend the major league baseball season enough, one wild card for each league was added in 1994, but not used until 1995 because of a player’s strike which canceled the 1994 World Series.

The wild card teams were accepted as “full-blooded members” of the baseball post-season, with all the benefits of regular members, except that they couldn’t have home-field advantage. The 1997 Florida Marlins were the first team to win the World Series from the wild-card spot.

In 2000, the New York Mets went to the World Series as a wild-card, but the Yankees won their division and the World Series with 87 wins.

In 2002, the Los Angeles Angels won the World Series over the San Francisco Giants—both wild-card teams.

In 2003, the Marlins again won the World Series as a wild card and in 2004 the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, also as a wild card.

2005 was a special year for us Houston Astros fans because our guys reached the World Series for the first time in franchise history, but were swept in four straight games by the Chicago White Sox.

In 2006, the Detroit Tigers reached the World Series as a wild card and lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that won the NL Central Division with just 83 victories.

In 2007, the Colorado Rockies reached the World Series as a wild card and last year in 2011 the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series as a wild card.

As this week’s edition of USA Today Sports Weekly points out: “If you found yourself in a heated race for the division title, well, it didn’t matter as long as you had a good enough record to be in the wild-card spot. This devalued one of baseball’s greatest qualities, the September pennant race.

“So baseball people came up with a novel way to deal with it. Instead of getting rid of the wild card, they added another wild card, but took away full membership rights for wild-card teams. Now, wild cards have to face each other in a one-game cage match for the privilege of getting into the REAL post-season.”

The weekly newspaper concluded that there now is no question that if you’re in a pennant race, your team will want to do everything in its power to win the division, because the wild card is “fraught with peril.”

Anybody could lose a one-game playoff which was proven last weekend by the Atlanta Braves and the Texas Rangers. Plus, if your team wins the one-game playoff, it will go into the Division Series wounded, with its best pitcher burned out for three or four days.

In the National League, the Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants won their divisions without much of a pennant race. Atlanta easily secured that first wild card and would have been in the Division Playoffs if Major League baseball didn’t alter the format by creating another wild card, which happened to be the fortunate St. Louis Cardinals.

Because the Braves had the better record, the one-game playoff was held at Turner Field in Atlanta. Trailing 6-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Braves loaded the bases with one out.

Andrelton Simmons hit a pop fly that dropped at least 50 feet beyond the infield dirt in short left field that would have scored one or maybe two runs. However, umpire Sam Holbrook ruled Simmons out under the infield fly rule. So instead of the Braves trailing by two or maybe even one run with still only one out, there were two outs.

The fans at Turner Field went berserk, littering the field with beer cups, buckets of popcorn and anything they could get their hands on to throw on the field, leading to a scary 19-minute delay.

Holbrook and umpiring supervisor Charlie Reliford defended the call. “Once the fielder established himself, he got ordinary effort,” Holbrook said. “That’s when the infield fly rule was called.”

Atlanta went on to lose 6-3 making St. Louis the wild card team in the best-of-five National League Divisional Series playing against the Washington Nationals.

The Texas Rangers, who lost the AL West Division title on the final day of the regular season after being swept in three games at Oakland, dropped nine of their final13 games but had the best wild-card record in the American League.

The Rangers lost the one-game wild-card playoff to the Baltimore Orioles 5-1 Friday, and like the Atlanta Braves will be watching the rest of the major league post-season in the comfort of the living room at their own homes.

KWICKIES..Now that Terry Francona is back into the major league managing circle after being hired last weekend as the new skipper for the Cleveland Indians, don’t be surprised if he names former Houston Astros’ manager Brad Mills to his staff. Francona has managed for 12 seasons in the majors, compiling a 1,029-915 record. His father, Tito, played for the Indians from 1959-64.

The national sports media claimed that the Texas Longhorns were defeated by West Virginia 48-45 Saturday night because former Penn State kicker Anthony Fera, playing in his first game for the ‘Horns, missed a 41-yard field goal late in the game that would have tied the score 41-41. But what really lost the game for the Longhorns was the premature or bad snap on the preceding third down play that lost 16 yards. A good snap might have kept the drive alive or at least would have made the field goal try a 25-yarder instead. And for its punishment, Texas is a three-point underdog to Oklahoma in Saturday’s Red River Shootout in Dallas.

Perhaps those sub-par performances against Auburn (12-10) and Towson (38-22) foreshadowed LSU’s miserable offensive showing Saturday at Gainesville in Florida’s 14-6 upset over the Tigers. Don’t be surprised if the three points LSU is favored by Saturday night against South Carolina slowly melts away by kickoff time.

Washington Redskins’ rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III hopefully learned a very valuable lesson Sunday in his team’s 24-17 loss to the undefeated Atlanta Falcons.  When you have to run with the football, either hot-foot it for the sidelines and go out of bounds or else look like a baseball player and do a hook slide before contact is made. If RG3 did one of those two things Sunday, he wouldn’t have suffered a slight concussion and a cut face when Atlanta linebacker and Jasper native Sean Weatherspoon made his bone-crushing tackle.

Three teams vaulted into the top five in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 College Poll. South Carolina jumped from sixth to No. 3, Florida surged from tenth to No. 4 and West Virginia jumped three notches from eighth to No. 5 while Alabama maintained its hold as the No. 1 team in the country despite being idle last week and Oregon remained No. 2. Kansas State moved up one slot to No. 6, Notre Dame went up two spots to No. 7 and Ohio State catapulted four spots to No. 8 while LSU slid from fourth to No. 9 and Oregon jumped four spots to No. 10. Texas plummeted four notches to No. 15 and TCU dropped out of the top 25 due to the suspension of its quarterback.

JUST BETWEEN US…Those National Football League fans living outside the Lone Star State are becoming real familiar with what the Houston Texans are all about and that’s winning. The Texans played the New York Jets before an national audience on Monday Night Football and will turn right around and meet the mighty Green Bay Packers at Reliant Stadium on national TV Sunday night.