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July 17, 2008

All-Star Sabotage

Looking Forward to 2009

by Matt Meyers

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In the wake of what some are calling the greatest All-Star Game ever, I realize it’s probably unpopular to criticize the Midsummer Classic. As of now, it seems the only aspect of the game subject to any admonishment is the fact that both teams almost ran out of pitchers. Even though you can take both managers to task for not asking some of their pitchers to throw an additional inning here or there, you can’t really blame the All-Star Game format for the shortage of arms, because as we learned with the Mariners’ recent Jamie Burke experiment, managing a bullpen in a 15-inning affair can be a tricky proposition.

Before I go any further, I’d like to make it clear that I found this year’s All-Star Game riveting. Unfortunately, it highlighted what makes this game so flawed, and it goes beyond the fact that David Wright and J.D. Drew were being considered as emergency pitchers. Fortunately for all of us, I have a solution for said flaws, and it lies in the hands of our democracy.

The real problem with the All-Star Game began in 2003, when Bud Selig and Co. turned what was traditionally an exhibition into a “meaningful game” by awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that won the All-Star Game. This was a reaction to the 2002 game ending in a 7-7 tie after both squads ran out of players, and the powers that be deemed the public relations hit that came with that unsatisfying result to be so destructive that something had to be done to make the game relevant again. Unfortunately, this created an identity crisis that the All-Star Game has been dealing with ever since, as it tries to simultaneously be both a legitimate competition and an exhibition. As we learned in Rocky IV when Drago killed Apollo in what was supposed to be an exhibition bout, this is never a good idea.

Though there are ways of choosing home-field advantage that would be more equitable, such as giving it to the team with the best overall record or to the league with the better record in interleague play, I've never had a problem with the idea of spicing up the All-Star Game by giving it value beyond bragging rights. However, if the game is going to have tangible value, then play it likes it does. This means putting the best lineup on the field and playing that group the entire game if necessary (and certainly not removing the best player in the game in the middle of the fourth inning, as Terry Francona did this year). This also means only making changes when strategy dictates. I realize this wouldn't be so easy for pitchers, but MLB could easily implement pitch-limit rules similar to those used in the World Baseball Classic that would maintain the integrity of the competition.

The current format allows the fans to pick the starters for the game, which is ideal for an exhibition because fans can choose who they want to see. But if you're going to attach something as significant as home-field advantage in the World Series to the contest, it becomes a farce when you let the fans and players select most of the participants, insist every team must be represented, and create a situation in which the managers feel the need to play it like a Little League game and make sure that everyone on both teams get into the game. This was never more evident on Tuesday night than when many of the players on the field when the game was on the line were either fluke All-Stars (Ryan Ludwick), unexplainable All-Stars (Miguel Tejada), or my-team-has-no-chance All-Stars (George Sherrill).

I don’t mean to pick on these guys, because they all played well and contributed to an exciting evening. But if I’m a fan of a National League contender, it’s a little disappointing that my team won’t have home-field advantage in the World Series because Corey Hart has a noodle arm. If the league is going to use the Midsummer Classic to decide who gets up to four Fall Classic home games, let it be done by the absolute best. By the time this game was decided, most of the truly elite players were on the bench, and had been there for the better part of the evening.

This is particularly problematic in a year in which home-field advantage appears to be more crucial than ever. The Cubs (37-12 at home, 20-26 away), Red Sox (36-11, 21-29), Diamondbacks (27-19, 20-29), and White Sox (32-13, 22-27) have built their first-place resumés almost entirely on their strength of play at home. Though this kind of home-field dominance could easily be a statistical aberration, that doesn't change the fact that all of these teams (as well as their fans) would feel a lot more comfortable playing the majority of the World Series in their own park.

With all of these conflicting issues surrounding the All-Star Game, the league has a decision to make. Is it an exhibition, or is it a true competition? Let me suggest one man's solution.

As long as the selection of starters falls in the hands of the fans, we have the power to strong-arm the league into making the proper adjustments to the game. This can be done by sabotaging the starting lineup for the American League in next July's game in St. Louis. Why the American League? Because the NL needs all the help it can get after a 12-game All-Star Game winless streak (and because I'm a fan of the NL). I know this seems like blasphemy in light of Tuesday’s game, but in its current format, the All-Star Game will never be as good as it was this year, so now is the ideal time to make a change. While I realize it’s a bit early to discuss next year’s game, now seems like an appropriate time to raise awareness for the '09 sabotage campaign while the recent All-Star Game is fresh in all of our minds.

This is what’s going to happen. Once the All-Star ballot for 2009 is released next spring, I will select a team of the eight worst AL players on the ballot at each position, and this group will be featured on the website that I have created for this project. Once I pick these eight stiffs (pitchers are selected by the coaches), we will stuff the ballot boxes with votes for them. In a perfect world I would be able to set up a vote to select the anti-All-Star ballot, but that's not really the point. The point is choosing an embarrassing group of AL starters, and I'm confident I can compile a pretty lackluster group that could give the HACKING MASS All-Stars a run for their money. Please keep in mind that not all HACKING MASS All-Stars are on the real All-Star ballot, so this year's non-star squad would have looked something like this, since these eight gentlemen were all on the ballot:

C: Kenji Johjima (.213/.257/.292)
1B: Ross Gload (.277/.327/.336)
2B: Asdrubal Cabrera (.184/.282/.247)
SS: Tony Pena, Jr. (.155/.176/.204)
3B: Willy Aybar (.240/.329/.372)
OF: Emil Brown (.255/.292/.383)
OF: Franklin Gutierrez (.216/.264/.315)
OF: Chris Denorfia (.260/.339/.300)

As George Costanza said, after hypothetically trading Jim Leyritz and Bernie Williams for Barry Bonds while lobbying for the Yankees' assistant GM gig on Seinfeld, "Now you gotta team!" Can you imagine the look on Selig's face if this were the team that was selected to represent the AL? We’d even have had the added bonus of having to summon Cabrera from Triple-A! Do you think they would let him wear his Buffalo Bisons jersey in the game?

I realize these scrubs would all be backed up by All-Stars chosen by the players and coaches, but this kind of action would force the league to make changes by exposing the oxymoron that is their 'meaningful exhibition.' As a bonus for NL fans, it would give their side a significant edge. For all you AL fans out there, I hope you can look past the disadvantage this will cause your side and see the greater good this project is aiming for. To fully expose the warts of the All-Star format, something must be sacrificed.

I don't care if the game continues to decide home-field advantage or if they go back to a traditional exhibition, all that matters is that the league commits to the game being either a real competition or an actual exhibition. Truth be told, I enjoyed the exhibition, and I can’t think of anyone who actually cared all that much that the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a tie. If you are going to tell us the game means something, then play it like it does. As it stands now, the All-Star Game as an ongoing event is a mockery far worse than just 2002's debacle.

In a year in which Barack Obama has generated unprecedented interest in one kind of national election, it is clear Americans are ready for another grass-roots movement. So join the revolution. Who's with me?

Matt Meyers is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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