Brokers of bubbly are always beaming this time of year. Because you can't spell champagne without C-H-A-M-P, playoff clinches and popped corks are appropriately paired, like caviar and Dom Perignon. Yes, this is the time of year when Gatorade gets the boot from Brut. Clinching clubs go through crates of sparkling wine, spraying it in the clubhouse, on teammates, on reporters, on fans. Sometimes, they even get around to drinking it.
But what we've encountered here in 2012, through the expansion of the postseason format and the creation of a one-game Wild Card round, is a slight amount of awkwardness over how or when or even if the bubbly should be broken out. Division titles remain fit for frenetic festivities, naturally. But how should the Wild Card winners properly party when all they've assured themselves is one more game in a season already filled with 162 of them? We've seen that question come up this week. The Atlanta Braves clinched at least a Wild Card entry on Tuesday night and partied like it's 1995. Some people rolled their eyes or spouted off on talk radio that such celebration was excessive, and Chipper Jones fired back. "Why take it away from us?" Jones told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Every time we advance, you know what? We're going to celebrate whether you like it or not, whether it's apropos or not. We've earned it. And quite frankly, we can afford to pop a top on some champagne bottles and some beer cans if we want to." I don't begrudge the Braves their bubbly. When you remember that it's Jones' last season, that the Braves endured a monumental collapse a season ago and that this clincher came in one of the more electric methods imaginable -- a walk-off home run, hit by Freddie Freeman -- Atlanta had plenty of grounds for glorification. Likewise the Giants and Reds, who ran away with their divisions, then went clubbing in the clubhouse. This stuff seems case specific. For in other markets, in other circumstances, the methods of mayhem will be -- or already have been -- substantially more subdued. When the Nationals clinched a playoff berth last week, there were fireworks, there were hats and T-shirts handed out and there were celebratory high-fives. But that was pretty much the extent of the exalting, because the Nats know they have a very good chance of locking up the more prestigious NL East title. (And if and when they do, the capitol's first baseball championship of any sort in 79 years will almost certainly give way to a big bash.) When the Cardinals lock down what now seems an assured second Wild Card spot, they don't plan to go berserk. "No disrespect to what [the Braves] did," Adam Wainwright told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "but I think we're going to save the big pop for after we beat Atlanta." For the Cards, it's about acting like you've been there before, because, well, they have been there before. They are the defending world champs, after all. And so to celebrate a postseason berth only attained but by the graces of the expanded format might seem to them to be slightly unsophisticated. But even with an unprecedented 10 postseason entrants, MLB's percentage of teams reaching the postseason (33) is still the lowest of the four major professional sports. And after a 162-game grind, it would seem every postseason entry deserves at least some kind of celebration, even if it's not a champagne-soaked rager. So let's go with some ground rules, for players and fans alike. The level of partying should be tied to the level of accomplishment or satisfaction. Keep this chart handy when your club clinches: Level 5: You've just won the World Series. Recommended party plan: Show me the Moet! Go crazy, folks, go crazy. It's time for a champagne-flowing, beer-pouring, dogpile-forming, music-blaring, horn-honking, strangers-kissing, foot-stomping party for the ages. Level 4: You've just clinched a World Series berth with a League Championship Series victory. Recommended party plan: See Level 5, but, remember, your work is not done here. Try not to jump on anybody... especially the Game 1 starting pitcher. Level 3: You've just clinched a division title. Recommended party plan: See Level 4, but keep the music at a reasonable volume. It might distort your hearing, and you don't want any miscommunication in the postseason (a la the Tony La Russa bullpen phone fiasco). Level 2: You've just clinched a playoff berth, and A. It's your franchise's first in what feels like forever; B. the average age of a player on your roster is 17 ½; C. You have a future Hall-of-Famer on your roster and he's retiring at season's end and he's well-liked enough to receive gifts at every road stop from every opposing team this season and this could be his final shot at a celebration; or D. Nobody believed in you (Note: Every team says this, even the ones who were heavily favored; but you actually believe it). Recommended party plan:See Level 3, but sub out the "Division Champions" shirts for the slightly more wordy "Winners of One of the League's Two Wild Card Spots" shirts. Level 1: You've just clinched a playoff berth, but A. You are still mathematically favored to win your division; B. You were generally expected to win your division and you're settling instead for a Wild Card; C. It's your organization's 17th playoff appearance in 18 years and you had a 10-game division lead just a couple of months ago (this means you, Yankees); or D. You clinched because another team, two time zones away, lost while your game is still in the first inning. Recommended party plan: Celebrate, but keep it simple. No dogpiles, no speeches. Instead of caviar and champagne, maybe try Pizza Rolls and Sprite.