Tuesday, July 13, 2010
All For One, One From All?
Mercifully, the NBA free agency whirlwind has subsided, and while certainly all the folks in Cleveland are still pretty steamed (see what I did there? OK Lou you can act your age any minute now) about the public-perception suicide that LeBron James committed, the country now focuses the brunt of its attention on baseball, and specifically for this week, the All-Star Game. One of the time-honored debates that begins the moment the All-Star rosters are announced is the "every team gets represented by at least one player" rule. It used to be that people would only be annoyed at this rule because it would deny a more-deserving player or two a spot on the team, that spot instead going to someone merely having a decent year on a bad team. But since 2003, when Bud Selig found it necessary to inject meaning into a mid-season exhibition game by having its winner determine which league got home field advantage in the World Series, the debate has grown larger and larger. Fortunately, o my brothers, I am here today to solve that debate, in the way that all of our middle school English teachers taught us to - with a bit of the old pro and con.
Mandating that every team be represented in the All-Star Game is one of the few egalitarian things left in a sport that has become the ultimate caste system over the past 15 years. From a visual perspective, the All-Star Game is unlike anything else, in that you will see 30 different uniforms on the field over the course of the game. Since all of the other sports - football, basketball, hockey, etc. - are nearly impossible to play unless the two teams are wearing distinctly different colors, baseball is the one sport that can pull this off. I, for one, take great enjoyment in seeing every single major league uniform on the field during the Midsummer Classic, and sacrificing a Royal or an Oriole just to get yet another Yankee in there does not seem to go along with the way it was originally drawn up. Not to mention, don't you think much of America is sick of seeing the same 7-8 teams on national television all the time? By mid-July we've all had plenty of Pujols, Jeter, and Halladay. It's a nice change of pace, not to mention a fandom-enriching experience, to see guys like Corey Hart, Heath Bell, and Joakim Soria play on a big stage. It's a spectacle that should put the whole league on display, not just the 4 or 5 biggest markets.
Let's start with the name. "All-Star Game." That kind of implies that every participant should be a star, yes? If that's the case, then good luck convincing me that such players as Michael Bourn (hitting .255 for the sad-sack Astros, albeit with 28 steals), Evan Meek (he does have some nice numbers, but he's a setup guy on the Pirates, give me a break), and Ty Wigginton (sporting a sweet .334 on-base percentage for the 29-win Orioles) really belong on that field. You're selling me on a game where I am just as likely to see a matchup of John Buck vs. Matt Capps (the 23 saves are nice, the 49 hits allowed in 39 innings aren't) as I am to see Cliff Lee against Albert Pujols (Editor's Note: Cliff Lee blew Albert away on 3 pitches in the 4th inning. So I at least got that one.)? And what's worse, the deeper the game goes, how much more likely is it that the average fan will not even have heard of many of the guys on the field at crunch time? Under this system, a guy hitting .260 for a last place team can potentially have the at-bat that decides whether the AL or NL gets home field come late October? Has the whole world gone crazy? Do you get what I'm driving at? Did I just end 5 straight sentences with question marks?
Believe it or not, I'm steadfastly in favor of having every team represented in the All-Star Game. It's bad enough that the owners in cities like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Kansas City act like they're trying to kill baseball in their respective towns. The least MLB can do to avoid twisting the knife in those beleaguered fan bases is throw them the bone of being able to root for one of their own guys in the Midsummer Classic. What about all the stuff I just said in the last paragraph, about the every-team rule dragging down the talent level? Well, I really don't think that's the issue.
The issue is with how the game is treated. You can't contrive meaning for an exhibition game. Our parents' generation loves to talk about the days when the All-Star Game was a bitter rivalry and meant just as much or more than any regular season game. They croon about Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse in 1970 to illustrate that point. Well I'm sorry, but everyone is going to have to accept the fact that those days are over. There is too much money invested in the players on the field for the All-Star Game to be treated as anything more than an exhibition. Ray Fosse's career was severely derailed after getting decked by Pete Rose. Can you imagine the backlash if that happened today? And it doesn't even have to involve rough play. For instance, if Charlie Manuel were truly managing to win this All-Star Game, don't you think he'd keep Ubaldo Jimenez in there for a lot more than two innings? I don't think they've even invented the words that the Rockies would have for ol' Cholly if he made their ace throw 100 pitches in an All-Star Game. And that's not even considering the issue of everyone not getting into the game, which pisses people off just as much. You can't ask a manager to try his hardest to win a game while at the same time making sure that everyone gets to play. It's a candle burning at both ends.
You could make the All-Star Game count for whatever you want, but guys from opposing teams are still going to be slapping each other on the back during batting practice and chatting while being held on at first base. It's just the way the game is played now. The new every-year DH and re-entry rules are a much-needed safeguard against running out of players, so the issue of repeating the 2002 tie is moot. Instituting those rules is the league saying "there's no reason that everyone can't get into the game," which stamps "EXHIBITION" in big red letters all over the thing. For those reasons, the best of both worlds is to allow the game to remain an exhibition, and simply award home field advantage in the World Series to the team with the better record. Now, can we simply let some of the most talented men on the face of the planet play a game of baseball, and leave it at that?