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April 15, 2003

Breaking Balls

Stealing the All-Star Game: An Apocryphal Tale

by Derek Zumsteg

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Ed. Note: The percentage of African-American ballplayers currently in MLB is at 11%--the lowest since 1959. MLB has been roundly criticized for failing to reach out and promote the game to urban youths.

Bud Selig walked into his office past his couch-of-bats-and-bases, whistling a happy tune. He hung up his coat, set down his briefcase next to his desk, and sat down. The sun shone through the window and Selig smiled.

"What a beautiful day," Selig said. "My team won yesterday, we have labor peace, and fans across the country have hope and faith once again."
Bob DuPuy knocked at the door. "Can I come in?"
"Of course, Bob," Selig said. "I've always got time for my lawyer."
They both laughed. Bob entered and sat on the couch.
"Can you believe the new Linkin Park CD is only 37 minutes?" Bud asked.
"Um, no."
"Twenty bucks, Bob. Thrirty-seven minutes. It's not that it's a bad album, but..."
"Bud, I came to talk about a serious issue," Bob said. "We're losing white fans to other summer sports. Soccer, particularly."
"And why not?" Bud said. "What a game!"
"I hired a survey firm..."
"...Was it our survey firm?" Bud asked.
"Of course. Your niece was happy to help and appreciated the business."
"She's a good kid."
"Anyway, Bud, they found that white suburban fans aren't identifying with baseball anymore. We're in danger of being seen as an 'urban' game, like basketball."
"Oh, dear."
"Don't worry, though, I have a plan."
"Whew," Bud sighed. He took off his glasses and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. "Because I'm stumped."
"Let me tell you my plan," Bob said. "Do you remember back in 2001, when we pushed all those ballots to Japan?"
"That was great. It would have been even better if not for that troublemaker Rob Neyer."
Bob nodded. "My plan is the same thing, only better."
"I'm excited," Bud said. "Tell me all about it."

And that afternoon they decided to steal the All-Star Game.

They hired Selig's niece to do some more polling and projections and came out with the All-Star teams likely to be voted in. There were many players on the projected starting team who weren't white. Too many for white fans to enjoy, in their opinion. Additionally, through the same polling they discovered that fans tended to vote in approximately the same proportions for home-town players and players not on the home team they believed to be deserving. And it was within a fan's definition of deserving that race became a huge factor. Polled fans displayed a huge bias towards deserving players of their own race. Latino fans, for instance, tended to more closely follow their favorite Latino players and vote for them.

Selig and DuPuy knew they wouldn't be able to swing the AL shortstop from Alex Rodriguez to David Eckstein. Instead, they decided to concentrate on battles they could win: Troy Glaus over Eric Chavez. Push Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds into the starting outfield to go along with Barry Bonds. Maybe even get Bret Boone elected instead of Alfonso Soriano. They wanted to make many small moves to produce a dramatic whitening of the 18 starting position players.

The ballot was first. Baseball still designed Spanish and Japanese ballots, but made them nearly impossible to get. What few Spanish ballots were printed headed to Toronto and Montreal, while Japanese ballots went to Houston and Arlington. Traditional international balloting in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela was severely curtailed, while Canadian balloting was boosted tremendously ("Gotta get Larry Walker in there!"). Selig prepared a statement on the ballot shortages, how baseball was surprised by "unprecedented demand," in case the issue came up. No one asked.

Baseball carefully picked their sponsored voting partners. Baseball distributed ballots at upscale suburban grocery stores like Larry's Markets, and declined to make deals with chains that have a strong presence in areas where whites made up less of the population. Abercrombie & Fitch sent out an All-Star ballot with a special edition soft-core catalog ("Buy our crappy clothes because these kids in the pictures don't wear anything"), but Slam Dunk in the Bronx? No chance.

MLB distributed the ballots at parks unevenly, so that fans in cities like Atlanta couldn't vote. In each of those cities, ballot shipments were delayed due to problems with the local printers, and then shipping disputes. The parks being targeted started voting late, ran out of ballots quickly, found there weren't boxes to turn them in, and baseball kept ushers from helping to collect ballots for "security reasons." Baseball hired off-duty cops to hang around the boxes at Turner Field for additional security and give voters a good look-over. What collection boxes there were moved frequently to keep fans from knowing where they could vote from game-to-game and establishing a habit.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, the voting started up early, fans were given ballots as they entered, more ballots were distributed (and completed ballots collected) every inning by helpful section attendants, and voting was encouraged at every inning break. Collection boxes were everywhere. MLB inserted ballots as an ad wrap with local newspaper sports sections in white-dominated areas in support of their targeted get-out-the-vote efforts.

Internet balloting changed in a big way. Internet access, especially broadband, is the domain of the well-to-do, so baseball made the ballot process long and heavy with large graphics to make dial-up users give up in frustration when faced by long load times. To prevent ballot stuffing, baseball implemented new security procedures. Besides the IP-tagging of the past--where they attempted to stem the flow of automated scripts from specific points--for 2003, a firm led by Selig's cousin-in-law added dynamic thresholds. Using geo-location on IP addresses, they dropped random ballot submissions from IPs in demographically unsuitable communities. The user saw a timeout, and the audited, certified vote-counting system never received the vote. It looked like a standard Internet technical problem, so no one complained.

To further ensure the security of voting, online voting required more personal identification information. MLB hired a firm to compile a list of names of people arrested in and around ballparks, for anything from public intoxication to scalping tickets--every case they could find where the police got a fan's name, even if no ticket was issued or arrest was made. Baseball used this list of names to vet the on-line balloting selectively based on the geographic information they got from the IP address it was tagged with, so that Clay Johnson in Atlanta's ballot for an outfield with Anduw Jones and Gary Sheffield was tossed, while Clay Johnson in Phoenix's ballot including Jim Edmonds was counted.

They ported that idea back to the paper punch-out ballots. What few ballots had been turned in Atlanta were put through the a rigorous inspection process, with every ballot that was folded, spindled, or torn dropped from the tally. Every ballot where any light could make it through two holes at the same position--say, because a ballot had been flexed at some point--was thrown out. Dirty ballots, ballots where there was a 'write-in' at the same position they'd poked out a hole--even if they hadn't poked out the write-in hole and had written the same name they'd punched out--were all discarded. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, if it could be run through the machine and not cause it to explode, the vote counted.

It worked. White fans in general were impressed at what an easy and pleasant exercise it had been to vote and vote often, while fans being kept out blamed their experience on baseball's general incompetence. Even working so many angles, MLB still lost a couple of close positions; but the result was exactly what they'd wanted. The starting lineup wasn't noticeably racist--still including huge not-white stars like Barry Bonds--but it was whiter than it had been in ages. Good enough for government work, certainly.

Related Content:  Fans,  Bud Selig,  Bob DuPuy

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