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January 22, 2003

Prospectus Feature

The Midsummer Classic: Making it More Than Just an Exhibition Game

by Doug Pappas

Last week, Major League Baseball's owners unanimously approved Commissioner Bud Selig's proposal to give the league that wins the All-Star Game home field advantage in the World Series. In the official release announcing the vote, Selig proclaimed, "This change is designed to re-energize and give greater meaning to the All-Star Game."

This wasn't a problem before 1997. Until then, the All-Star Game had plenty of meaning. It was the only time before the World Series when AL and NL players competed against one another. However, in yet another Selig-era obsession with the short-term "fix," the owners not only wore out the novelty of interleague play in short order, but took the bloom off their own midsummer showcase by scheduling all those interleague games within three weeks of the All-Star Game. MLB's antitrust exemption might protect the league from a lot of things, but it doesn't protect it from the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The move will surely be applauded by Fox, which has TV rights to the next three All-Star Games. And MLB's current proposal could improve the quality of the game, especially if players from contending teams appreciate the impact of a win.

Still, the move has been met with considerable skepticism from the players. As NL player representative Tom Glavine told the New York Times: "It's an exhibition game. That's how it's approached. What other games do we play where we have the starting pitchers wearing microphones? If you want to do that, it's going to be hard for players to have the mentality that this is a win-at-all-cost game." As the MLBPA must approve the proposed change before it takes effect, Glavine's comments suggest that the issue is far from resolved.

Home field advantage in the World Series has never been more important. Consider:

  • Fifteen of the last 17 Series have been won by the team with the home field advantage-with two of those championships going to the 1987 and 1991 Twins, who didn't win a road game in either series.
  • The last eight Game Sevens have been won by the home team.
  • In five of the seven Series between 1984 and 1990, the extra home game went to a club whose record was at least 10 games worse than its opponent. Four of those five teams won the Series, two in seven games.

The current system is simply arbitrary. Home field advantage is determined entirely by the calendar, with the AL receiving the extra game in even-numbered years, the NL in odd-numbered years. Before this scheme was adopted in the 1920s, home field advantage was determined by a coin toss. Two coin tosses, actually: one before the Series to determine where the first game would be played, one before the sixth game to determine where the seventh game, if necessary, would be played. At least using the All-Star Game introduces a baseball-related factor and may increase interest in the game.

(In the early days, clubs didn't care much about home field advantage. The 1914 Boston Braves shifted their "home" World Series games to Fenway Park because it was larger than their decrepit South End Grounds. After Braves Field opened in mid-1915, the Red Sox returned the favor, using the NL park for their "home" games in 1915 and 1916. All three Boston clubs won their Series, posting a combined 12-2 mark against opponents who knew their home fields better than they did.)

Ultimately, it still seems bizarre to let a potentially outcome-determinative factor hinge on the outcome of a midseason exhibition game. Home field advantage for the World Series is too important to be decided by the stray Devil Rays, Orioles, Pirates and Brewers who populate the late innings of an All-Star Game. It should be awarded according to the same rules which already determine home field advantage for the divisional series and LCS. The club with the better regular season record should get the extra game, with the proviso that a wild card can never have home field advantage against a division winner. The owners have shown no interest in a system that would actually reward on-field success by the competing clubs though, so don't hold your breath.

Granted, even without "greater meaning," MLB's All-Star Game is the best of the four major team sports' mid-season exhibitions. The NFL Pro Bowl is a season-ending afterthought, a weeklong vacation in Hawaii climaxed by "action" less intense than a midweek scrimmage. The high-scoring NHL and NBA exhibitions resemble video games set to Easy mode. But MLB's All-Star Game looks like real baseball. Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez don't throw batting practice, and Barry Bonds doesn't adopt Rey Ordonez's strike zone for the day.

But then the third inning begins. For the next three hours, every All-Star manager becomes Tony LaRussa with a September roster. The 30 All-Stars provide enough warm bodies for three complete lineup changes. The players voted into the starting lineup leave the game in favor of token representatives of bad teams, and by the ninth inning the path from the bullpen to the mound needs resodding.

Want proof? Consider the fact that no pitcher has thrown more than two innings in an All-Star Game since 1994. Regardless of their effectiveness, starters accustomed to throwing 100 pitches in a game are pulled after 20. Joe Torre and Bob Brenly took 11 innings to burn through 19 pitchers last year, but in 2001 Torre and Bobby Valentine combined to use 19 in just 8-1/2 innings. Only Randy Johnson threw more than 26 pitches, and six pitchers were pulled after fewer than 10. Last year's 11-inning tie was the inevitable result of a crowd-pleasing, everybody-plays philosophy appropriate for a meaningless exhibition, but wholly inconsistent with competitive baseball.

But this is a matter of management style, and not a problem with the All-Star Game itself. If MLB wants to add excitement and meaning to the All-Star Game, it doesn't need to award the winning team home-field advantage in the World Series-it need only tell the managers to treat the game more like a regular-season contest. Unfortunately, the owners' thinking seems to be typified by Jerry Colangelo, who responded to news of player resistance to the proposal by saying, "Their arguments are kind of hollow, whatever they are."

This "without even listening to you, I know you're wrong and I'm right" attitude may be fine for the host of a radio call-in show, but it's a terrible way to run a business. The World Series deserves better.

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