This post was going to be a softball: I was planning a possible hosanna to baseball‘s All-Star game, which will be played tonight in Kansas City, or an introduction to the game’s latest intriguing player, minor league speed-freak Billy Hamilton. (Read a good piece about him here).
But then I remembered something: the league that wins the All-Star game enjoys home field advantage in the World Series. That’s enough to put anyone in a cranky mood.
Come on, America. Your collective groans helped college football start a playoff system. Can we now gripe about mid-summer stupidity?
It all started ten years ago. The 2002 All-Star Game, in Milwaukee, ended in a 7-7 tie after 11-innings. Both teams ran out of players. Bud Selig threw up his hands, and the backlash was swift.
In hindsight, that anger seemed excessive. If no one wins an exhibition game, is it really a federal offense? Baseball responded, however, and came up with an odd solution: let’s skewer our marquee product, the World Series, in favor of a league that wins a July showcase that nobody remembers come October.
(MORE: Watch Bill Murray’s Heartfelt Minor League Baseball Hall of Fame Speech)
Nine All-Star games have been played under these rules. The team with home-field advantage won the World Series six times. Since 1985, the team with home-field advantage has won 21 of 26 World Series titles.
The change was supposed to deliver better television ratings for the All-Star game, since the game now “counted.” But as Jerry Crasnick points out on ESPN.com:
The All-Star Game peaked with 36.3 million viewers and a 53 percent audience share in 1976, when national sensation Mark “The Bird” Fidrych started for the AL. By 1991, there were 24.6 million viewers and a 32 share. Last year, it was down to a record-low 11 million and a 12 share. Baseball’s declining All-Star ratings mirror a similar pattern in other sports, but it’s the only game that’s gone to the extreme of propping up its signature midseason showcase in such a radical way.
Though the All-Star result is crucial to the World Series, managers continue to treat it like Little League, giving everyone a chance to play. All-Stars are not created equal: if you’re truly trying to win a baseball game, you probably don’t bench a Joey Votto after a few at-bats, and let Bryan LaHair play in crunch time. And yet, as Crasnick notes:
• In the infamous 2002 game at Miller Park that caused this entire sea change, Torre and Brenly combined to use 60 players, and Yankees catcher Jorge Posada was the only starter to stay in the game long enough to record three at-bats.
• In last year’s game at Chase Field in Arizona, opposing managers Ron Washington and Bruce Bochy combined to use 60 players, and Milwaukee second baseman Rickie Weeks was the only starter to stay in the game long enough to record three at-bats. In both cases, the box score looked an awful lot like a spring “B” game in Surprise or Port St. Lucie.
Everyone should play in the All-Star game. Part of the fun is seeing all the different match-ups – not to mention the color combos of all the different uniforms. But you can’t have it both ways. Managers can’t keep doing the respectful thing – permitting players who have given up some days off to participate in a game actually participate in the game – while trying to win a game that can tilt a World Series. The goals conflict.
Plus, how can you give a game so much importance, and still let fans stuff ballots to impact the outcome? No offense against fans, but it they vote Atlanta Braves second baseman Dan Uggla, who is hitting .221, onto an All-Star starting lineup – like they did this season – they probably shouldn’t vote.
And just to add to the All-Star insanity, Tony LaRussa – who retired from the St. Louis Cardinals after winning the World Series last season – is managing the National League team. Hey, as the champ, it’s his right to do so. But now, the decisions of a guy no longer in the game could carry enormous consequences for the postseason.
Why not let the team with the better regular season record get home field in the World Seres? It’s fair, and has worked just fine for the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals. So please, baseball, let the All-Star game return to its roots as a nice little July distraction – that has nothing to do with October.