July 7, 2009
A Modest All-Star Proposal
Baseball's All-Star Game was once a cutthroat battle between two distinct and competitive entities, one of just two times all season that the leagues interacted. The game was played largely by the very best players in baseball, and those players often went the distance. If you wanted to see Babe Ruth face Carl Hubbell, or Bob Feller take on Stan Musial, or Warren Spahn pitch to Ted Williams, the All-Star Game was just about your only hope.
In the modern era, the All-Star Game has been reduced to the final act of a three-day festival, in recent seasons often overshadowed by the previous night's Home Run Derby. Rather than a grudge match between rivals, it's an interconference game like the NFL, NBA, and NHL events. The individual matchups, once unique, have been diluted by interleague play. Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is how the managers and players approach the game.
In the first All-Star Game back in 1933, the starting lineups went the distance. The AL made just one position-player substitition, getting legs in for Babe Ruth late in the game. In the NL, the top six hitters in the lineup took all their at-bats. Each team used three pitchers. A quarter-century later, this was still the general idea: seven of the eight NL position-player starters in the 1958 game went the distance, five AL hitters did, and the teams used just four pitchers each. The best players in baseball showed up trying to win to prove their league's superiority.
Then it all went awry. Before interleague play or 32-man rosters or All-Star Monday, there were the years of two All-Star Games. From 1959 through 1962, the AL and NL met twice each summer as a means of raising revenues for the players' fledgling pension fund. In '58, 32 players played in the All-Star Game, 12 of them staying for the entire game. In 1963, the first year after the experiment, 41 players played and just five went the distance. The 1979 game, one of the all-time best contests, saw 49 players used and had just three starters who were around at the end. Fast-forward to 2007-the last nine-inning All-Star Game-and you find 55 players in, 17 pitchers used to get 54 outs, and not a single starter left in the game at its conclusion.
The All-Star Game has lost its luster because the game isn't taken seriously by the people in uniform. Don't read what they say-watch what they do. That's the damning evidence that the participants care less about winning than they do about showing up. Tying home-field advantage in the World Series to the game didn't change a thing to arrest the trends of managers running the game like it's gym class. Should World Series home-field advantage be decided when some Oriole having the best first half on his team singles off of some National having the best first half of his? Expansion accounts for the larger rosters-up to 33, including an absurd 13 pitchers, for next week's showdown-but no one is forcing the managers to use everyone. They and the players can play the game the way it was played in 1958, they're simply choosing not to. That's what's taking the Midsummer Classic down the garden path to becoming the Pro Bowl.
The damage done to the All-Star Game is the inevitable end product of every change Bud Selig has made during his reign. Selig has worked to bring together the two leagues operationally, eliminating league presidents, separate umpiring crews, and alternating picks in the draft. He's also diluted the mystery of the individual circuits with three weeks of cross-league games each season, some teams playing as many as six times every year. By the time Roy Halladay faces Brian McCann in St. Louis, well, we've already seen that (McCann went 2-for-2 against Doc on May 22), and a dozen other matchups just like it.
Selig isn't backing off on interleague play, and the shift from distinct leagues to MLB conferences is permanent. So if you want to fix the All-Star Game, there's just one thing left to do: Leave the starters in. The single biggest change to this game in the last 50 years is that the elected starters make cameo appearances for an at-bat, for three innings in the field, then leave. Albert Pujols is the game's greatest player, and he has just 15 All-Star Game plate appearances in his eight seasons to date. Derek Jeter is as famous as any player alive, and he has 19 PAs in his 13 seasons, including nine All-Star Games. Johan Santana has never thrown more than an inning in an All-Star Game, and has a career total of three. Halladay has four career All-Star innings. None of this can possibly be good for the game, or for the Game. These are your most marketable stars, and they are making cameos rather than taking the lead.
You can talk all you want about larger rosters, larger leagues, the need to protect pitchers and the number of players who beg out of the festivities, but when you run the game like everyone's grabbing orange slices and juice boxes after it, interest wanes. Some guys will have to get used to the idea that being selected is the honor, while the best players in baseball, the game's top stars, get the most playing time. That's what made baseball's All-Star Game the best of its kind, and it's the only thing that will get us to care about it again.