July 11, 2007
Lies, Damned Lies
All-Star Game WrapSAN FRANCISCO - I've never had particularly strong feelings about the All-Star Game. I remember being passionate about it as a kid, and less passionate about it as an adult, and that was pretty much that, until I got an invitation to cover this year's game from AT&T Park.
If you watch the All-Star Game on television, it's hard to be anything but indifferent. FOX produces the game such that the focal point is anything and everything except for the action on the field--Eric Byrnes' kayak in McCovey Cove, Chase Utley's favorite type of pasta, Scooter the Talking Baseball. But a lot gets lost in translation. The fans are genuinely invested in the outcome, and the atmosphere at the park is genuinely tense--not quite postseason tense, but well above regular season levels. When I left the park at the end of the game, the Giants/National League partisans on the Muni Metro looked genuinely dejected. The All-Star Game is a genuine baseball game, and it deserves a genuine outcome.
Indeed, one of the wonderful things about baseball is that it's a sport that is hard to play indifferently. Basketball players pace themselves. Football players don't pace themselves, generally speaking, but they live in the shadow of injury, and it's irrational to expect them to risk life, limb, and their non-guaranteed contracts for the sake of an exhibition contest. Baseball, on the other hand, is a reaction sport; with a couple of minor exceptions like a close play at home plate (or Larry Walker's jumping-the-shark moment against Randy Johnson), a baseball player is going to have a hard time giving less than 100 percent. Half of a second between the time the ball leaves the pitcher's hand and crosses home plate isn't enough time to be lazy.
Not that the 64 men on the All-Star rosters would have deigned to be lazy in the first place. This was a game played at max effort. The pitchers weren't leaving anything in their tanks, taking advantage of the knowledge that they only had 15 or 30 pitches to throw by pouring the most into every offering. There were three stolen bases in this game, one of which came from a guy who is supposed to have a bad hamstring, and another of which came from a guy who has just three stolen bases on the season. The players get it, the fans get itů it's the people that come in between that don't.
Some of the people that come in between, of course, are the executives and broadcasters at FOX. Consider this: why are All-Star Game Ratings continuing to decline at a time when the sport as a whole is as popular as it has ever been? Could it have something to do with the fact that FOX treats the game with less than the respect that it deserves? You can point out, certainly, that postseason ratings are down too, but this has an obvious counter: FOX's coverage of the playoffs is similarly misguided.
The second group of people complicit in the problem are those at 350 Park Avenue. I believe that Bud Selig and his coterie have good intentions, but they've given the All-Star Game an impossible mandate. Expanding the rosters has made it harder, rather than easier, to play to win, since few managers other than Ozzie Guillen are going to be willing to let a substantial number of players rest on their bench for nine innings. To some extent also, the uncertain disposition of a game that goes substantially beyond nine innings is a problem. It's clear that a tie is an unacceptable outcome, yet what is the alternative if the game heads into the top of the 13th with the score even? Do you stretch pitchers out for more than three innings? Do you allow players to re-enter the game? Do you call it a night and resume the game the next day (which doesn't resolve the aforementioned problems)? Or do you give up and declare the game a tie after all, determining home field advantage by coin flip? The rules are ambiguous on this question, and the precedent is non-existent.
We'll revisit this dilemma in a moment. But first, let's not give a free pass to the managers. Or more precisely, let's not give a free pass to Tony La Russa. It was clear from the first inning on that Jim Leyland was playing to win. As John Perrotto reports, Leyland went through a scientific process to determine his starting pitcher, and he let him pitch for two innings. He pulled J.J. Putz with two outs in the ninth inning, risking a bruised ego in his process. He deployed his bench in relatively rational ways: his most valuable starters were the last ones out of the game, and he made superb use of the double switch. It was clear that Leyland had done his homework.
The same cannot be said of his opposite number in the National League dugout. Tony La Russa outlined a magic bullet theory about how he was precluded from using Albert Pujols before extra innings because of an injury to Miguel Cabrera; never mind that he had nine innings and a thirty-two man roster with which to come up with alternatives. La Russa refused to let Jake Peavy go more than one inning, even though there is an unusually large differentiation between Peavy and the rest of the NL staff. He pulled Barry Bonds from the game--or let Barry Bonds pull himself--after just two at-bats.
I happen to believe that La Russa was being stubborn for reasons that may never be entirely known to us; perhaps he and Pujols came into the game with some baggage. Nevertheless, La Russa does have a pretty good excuse, which are those disconnects that the current structure of the game bring to the surface. If baseball is serious about making the All-Star Game count, it ought to do the following:
The All-Star Game can return to its rightful place as one of the best moments of the baseball calendar, but in order to do so, it needs to reflect those things that make the sport great in the first place. That means that the distractions must end once the first pitch is thrown, and that the managers need to be equipped with a set of rules and expectations that allow them to show off their skills just as the players do.