Gimme A Break!

July 14, 2008

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Street Reporter

Gimme A Break!

It’s the All-Star Break once again, that mythical halfway point in the season (I say “mythical” because most teams have played 95-96 games, more than the 81 that’s the true midway mark). Traditionally, it’s time for the teams to take a breath, collect themselves and iron out any kinks in their batting stroke or the pitching rotation—several starters made relief appearances or threw out of turn in the past game or two, knowing that three or four days of rest was coming for all of them.

For spectators and commentators like me, it’s also a time to pause and reassess, make second-half pronouncements, and try and find something to do with our afternoons and evenings.

Oh, yeah, there’s that All-Star game, around which this entire break is built. As much of an avid baseball as I am, I rarely watch it. Possibly because I’ve grown up during the era when it didn’t mean much, when hard Pete Rose slides were derided as somehow offensive to the concept of this showcase of talent. Pitchers would throw their honorary inning or two, and batters were rotated to give everyone a chance to get a hit, just like in Little League.

And—surprise, surprise—nobody cared much about it, just as they don’t care about the all-star games in the other three major sports. Football has accepted this, scheduling it for the end of the season in Hawaii, allowing players to bow out for injuries major and minor, and even instituting rules (no blitzing, no men in motion, no rushing a special-teams play) to make it easier and less injurious to play. They don’t even call it an “all-star” game because so many sit out; the “Pro Bowl” sounds suspiciously like one of those college-showcase games like the Blue-Gray Bowl.

But only baseball has tried to inject artificial meaning into their all-star contest, by making it affect real, regular-season games. In 2003, a year after Bud Selig infamously called the All-Star game a tie after eleven innings were played and both bullpens were depleted, MLB changed the rules to inject artificial meaning into the game: World Series home-field advantage would henceforth go to the winning league in the All-Star Game.

It’s sort of like when a freak copier accident at work destroys your boss’ only copy of an important proposal, and he responds by declaring that all documents must now be typed twice by separate assistants, ensuring this once-in-a-lifetime accident never recurs.  Yes, it solves the problem (sort of)—but at what cost?

In the case of baseball, this “solution” seems similarly indirect, if not unfair. It’s not inconceivable for a World Series to be affected by a game in which none of the players were involved (not all pitchers throw, nor players play, in the All-Star game, especially under these new rules). Aside from this statistical probability, and the notion that a team’s destiny may be affected by a game not managed by their manager, nor played wholly by its own players, there are other knotty considerations to this artificial addition of urgency.

Probably the biggest concern is how this rule meshes—or fails to mesh—with the way that players are chosen. Most of them are selected by the fans, with the expected popularity-contest results. Manny Ramirez is starting in left field, instead of Carlos Quentin (who is younger, a better defender and having a season that's as good as, if not better, than Manny's). Josh Hamilton (with superior offensive numbers) is in center, over the better defender (Grady Sizemore, with only slightly inferior offensive numbers). Jeter’s the starter at short, in spite of being as poor a defender as ever, with Mike Young (better on both sides of the ball) on the bench. Would you take Kevin Youlikis at first over Justin Morneau? Perhaps, or perhaps not—but Terry Francona must, because The Fans Said So.

And this is just the AL. The NL is “stuck” with Lance Berkman, who’s having a heck of a year, instead of Albert Pujols, whom NL skipper Clint Hurdle had to hand-pick after fans passed on him. Pujols, for those of you who have been asleep since 2001, has been arguably the best hitter in baseball since then. And Ryan Braun’s a whiz with the bat—when he makes contact—but not such a great defender in left. Might you want to shift Nate McLouth, a reserve who normally plays in center, to right instead, since Nate’s OPS is 16 points higher even than slugger Braun?

Well, you can’t, and neither can the manager of either squad. Each is further restricted by the spot their pitchers occupy in their team’s rotation—Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon has asked that his staff ace Scott Kazmir not appear in the game. Kerry Wood pulled out to heal a blister, which meant that Carlos Marmol’s now in the Game—even though his manager Lou Pinella recently said he needed the rest afforded by the All-Star Break. Plus there’s the aforementioned unwritten Little League “everybody plays” rule, which must now be balanced with (rather than eliminated by) the desire to win. Oh, yeah, and every team needs to send a representative, even the lowly Royals and Mariners.

Tie all this into the All-Star rules that the manager come from the previous year’s World Series representatives, and you have Clint Hurdle making decisions that will affect a World Series that his fourth-place, 39-57 Rockies would need another August miracle to reach. At least Terry Francona is making choices that might actually affect his Red Sox.

And so the artificial sense of urgency created by this oh-so-artificial rule change becomes increasingly apparent. Major League Baseball wants to have its cake and eat it too—have an All-Star game that features all its fan-favorite stars, while still have the game mean something. If they really wanted a meaningful game, they’d allow the two managers to at least choose their team’s starting lineups, give them a fresh rotation and truly full bullpen. Allow them to play who they want—and for that matter, allow the managers to be chosen by the players, to reflect the best and most deserving of this year’s teams.

And forget about having all the teams’ representatives there: if your team sucks that bad, then tough. You don’t get to watch anyone in the All-Star Game. Go cry in your Cheerios.

Until they make an All-Star game that means something through and through, until I see someone else slide like Pete Rose into Ray Fosse and not hear anyone whine and cry that the game “doesn’t mean anything,” I’m still going to treat it like the celebrity parade it truly is.

I’m enjoying my time off. I deserve the break.

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