Baseball’s All-Star Game needs fixing. The Midsummer Classic, renewed Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, is stuck in limbo. It’s part silly exhibition, part deadly serious decider of postseason fates.
The two parts don’t mix. And if the All-Star Game isn’t already a joke, it’s getting very close. Want to elicit derisive snorts among baseball fans? Use “This time it counts!” as a punch line. It never misses.
This is the first year I’ve seriously heard a commentator compare baseball’s All-Star Game to the NFL’s, the Pro Bowl, and I have to say the comparison sounded pretty fair to me. It’s a rule of life as crucial as not playing poker with guys named Doc: Don’t let anything you care about get compared to the Pro Bowl.
Thanks mostly, but not entirely, to historical factors beyond the control of mere mortals, the All-Star Game was already well on the way to irrelevance in 2002 when the dreaded tie game forced commissioner Bud Selig to make a decision, which is never a good thing. He made a typically Seligian move by declaring that to fix the All-Star Game, he would change the way the World Series works.
Selig’s the kind of guy who fixes his muffler by getting a louder stereo.
The problem at hand was that the teams ran out of pitchers to throw in extra innings, the result of the effort to get every player in the game. Rather than telling the managers “Stop doing that,” Selig declared that the winning league in the All-Star Game would have home-field advantage in the World Series.
It’s true, players have begun to take the game a little more seriously since then. You don’t see the starters running to catch planes after the fourth inning anymore, though again, this was a problem that could have been dealt with by asking the players to please stop doing that, wait another hour.
But it’s still an exhibition game. It’s still one that some players would rather skip in favor of three vacation days, one that teams often wish their star players would skip to rest and nurse injuries.
And it isn’t a game between the best players in the two leagues, which at least would lend some sense of fairness to the bestowing of home-field advantage to the winning side, but a game between players chosen because of a mix of results, personal popularity and being on last year’s pennant winner.
I don’t want to open up a debate about who should or shouldn’t be on the two teams this year, something I used to find a diverting pastime and now find boring, but it’s all anybody needs to know that Francisco Liriano, easily the most dominant pitcher in baseball this year, only made the A.L. All-Star team as a last-minute injury replacement.
If baseball is going to decide which league gets to host the World Series by the winner of the All-Star Game, it has to figure out a way to get the best players there.
But better yet, drop the silly idea of tying the game to the World Series. Selig says, “Everybody likes it,” by which he means the Fox TV executives, who can try to sell the game as having meaning. I’ve met a few people who like it, but not many.
Home-field advantage in the Series is just too important to base on an exhibition game. You’ve probably read some articles this year about how the American League is dominant over the National these days, and one of the pieces of supporting evidence is that A.L. teams have won five of the last six World Series.
Well, guess what. So have five of the last six teams that had home-field advantage. And 10 of the last 12, 17 of the last 20 and 23 of the last 29. At least at this point in history, the past three decades, home-field advantage is huge. It shouldn’t be used to try to prop up the fading cachet of the All-Star Game.
That’s really the problem. The reason players were no longer taking the game as seriously as they once had is because the All-Star Game had simply ceased to be the important spectacle it once had been. It’s probably hard for people raised in the age of ESPN to imagine this, but it was once a big deal to get to see most of the game’s best players at the same time.
I’m old, but, kids, I’m not that old. There are still big-leaguers not named Julio Franco who are older than me. And I can remember being excited to learn that my hometown team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, was planning to televise 26 games one year. Add an additional 20 or so for the California Angels, plus about 25 NBC Games of the Week on Saturday, and I was rich, able to see about 70 games a year if I were glued to the TV. And that was in a two-team market.
If I had a favorite player who didn’t play for a local team, and I really planned things out, and got a little lucky, I might get to see him play eight or nine games in a regular season. Now, for the price of a satellite package, I can watch any player almost every night, no matter where he plays. Seventy games a year? I can choose from more than 70 games every week.
So I’m just not going to get that excited because, oh boy, it’s the All-Star Game and I can see David Ortiz and Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer and Ryan Howard, all on the same night. I can see them all most nights.
That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. The All-Star Game is just an unfortunate casualty.
It’s also a factor that the rivalry that once existed between the two leagues is largely gone. That’s partly because star players jump across leagues more than they used to, so they don’t have loyalty to their circuit, and partly because of Selig’s policy of deemphasizing the differences between the leagues. He closed the league offices and combined the umpiring forces into one squad.
Interleague play, another of Selig’s babies, has further diminished the All-Star Game. It used to be a big deal to see, say, Yankees and Mets players in the same game. Now it’s routine. There go those unintended consequences again, Bud.
I think it’s time to just accept the fact that historical forces are working against the All-Star Game and embrace its irrelevance. Let it go. Put it on cable, let the players and fans have fun with it, stop trying to pretend it’s the major event it was when Willie Mays or Ted Williams was playing in it.
So you lose a marquee event. In exchange, you have all those Mets-Yankees and White Sox-Cubs interleague series. Life goes on. It may not be what it once was, but it’d be a whole lot better than limbo.
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