“We are big. It’s the game that got small.”–All-Stars

I miss the All-Star Game. Not to sound like your grandfather, but in the span of my memory it’s gone from a highlight of the summer to an afterthought. The slow and steady teardown of any delineation between the two leagues, with the final blow of interleague play, has turned the midsummer classic into the NBA All-Star Game with bigger rosters. There’s just no thrill to it anymore, no special quality to it. I watch it, and I note its fun moments, but I have been known to tune out the last five innings or so while I work or eat or read.

The players, in turn, treat it as a burden to be borne, frequently declining the honor to nurse minor injuries. While this is unfortunate, it’s understandable. As a fan, I would honestly rather see my team’s best players take three days off than make two flights and spend two days running around to get an at-bat or an inning pitched. Throw in the expanded leagues and rosters, along with the one-player-per-team rule, and the definition of “All-Star” becomes more a source of amusement than pride.

So why do I fill out a ballot? Because the All-Star Game could still be an honor, could still be a summertime staple, and I want to stay a part of the process until it does. Were interleague play to be eliminated, that one change would give the All-Star Game back its luster, marking one of only two times on the baseball calendar that the leagues meet. The separation of the leagues was a feature, not a bug, a difference that gave MLB an edge over the NFL and NBA. In its rush to ape everything those other sports do, it gave up that edge, which was a mistake. The connection between interleague play and the decline of the All-Star Game is clear, and just another reason to oppose the abomination.

If it seems early to be writing about the All-Star Game… well, I guess it is, but I did my ballot three weeks ago. I like filling out my All-Star ballot at a game, preferably with friends who enjoy debating the merits, or lack thereof, of the candidates for second base in the AL. In this case, I was alone at the Indians/Angels game. I did learn a lesson that evening: an All-Star ballot is easier to fill out at a blowout. I got so caught up in what was a great game that I neglected to go to my ballot until the evening was nearly complete.

Still, I filled it out, then put together a duplicate, stuck one in my bag and one in a box, and left the yard. I don’t have a problem with not having a laptop by my side to check on the VORP leaders at catcher in the NL, because I don’t define “All-Star” as “player having the best eight weeks of his life.” While current-season performance is information, I think the track record of the candidates prior to the current year carries much more weight. The All-Star Game is for the stars.

I recognize that not everyone feels the same way, but as you read through my ballot, keep that standard in mind, and also keep in mind my methodology. It may be archaic to fill out one ballot from Section 232 without an EqA list in sight, but it’s something I enjoy doing.

On to the NL ballot…

First Base: Albert Pujols, Cardinals. Well, duh. This is one of those positions that has three or four guys who at other times might be the obvious All-Star choice. Collectively, none of them have finished in the top four of MVP voting in every season of their careers.

Second Base: Chase Utley, Phillies. A year ago, I pondered whether Utley had passed Jeff Kent. While Kent remains a good player and an eventual Hall of Famer (and if you’re looking to break ties for an All-Star Game, you generally want to take Hall of Famers), Utley has become the better player, and is now the best second baseman in baseball.

Shortstop: Rafael Furcal, Dodgers. I wrote last Friday about Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez, two of the top ten players in the NL this season. If you wanted to argue that either, or both, have passed Furcal and deserve this spot, you’d have a case, although each has been an All-Star caliber player for just eight months. Both clearly bring more excitement value than does Furcal, and there’s a school of thought that says you want to get young stars to the All-Star Game. (This is often miscast as an excuse for voting in some random player having the year of his life.) Furcal has rarely been a superstar, but he has consistently been one of the top shortstops in the league, even as the names around him change from year to year. The NL has an unusually deep pool of shortstops right now; Edgar Renteria, Jimmy Rollins, and J.J. Hardy also all deserve mention.

Third Base: Miguel Cabrera, Marlins. I’d been autovoting Scott Rolen for a number of years, and I expected David Wright to be the player who passed him. Cabrera has lapped both of them, even conceding the significant defensive difference between him and the other two. He’s the answer to the question, “What would Manny Ramirez‘s career have looked like at third base?”

Catcher: Brian McCann, Braves. This isn’t that strong a crop, and McCann has been outplayed by Russell Martin for most of this year, so it’s a sketchy choice. Michael Barrett has a longer track record than either, although he’s not someone you think of as an All-Star. I wouldn’t change this pick. I wouldn’t go to the mat over it, either.

Outfield: Jason Bay, Pirates, Carlos Beltran, Mets, and Barry Bonds, Giants. What’s funny is that these three guys are all listed next to each other on the ballot, and after knocking them out, I thought, “hmmm, maybe that was hasty.” The NL outfield used to be ridiculously loaded, but a combination of aging (Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Edmonds), position changes (Lance Berkman), and league switches (Bobby Abreu, J.D. Drew) have thinned the pool considerably. As I look at the candidates, I see players who deserve to be acknowledged in the discussion, such as Matt Holliday and Carlos Lee, but I see no one who comes close to displacing the guys who got my vote.

A note on Bonds: on both Saturday and Sunday, I heard an argument-once it was actually asked of me on the radio-that I’ve been making for years. It concerns Bonds, who has never failed a drug test. The idea seems to finally be taking hold that, whatever you may believe Bonds did, he has never once tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance. That has to carry a lot of weight in the discussion of his career, as well as the current conversation about whether Bud Selig will attend Giants’ games as Bonds approaches home run #756.

The players acceded to a prove-your-innocence program to counter a runaway public perception that drugs were pervasive in the game. It’s patently unfair to demand that they do so and then ignore the results of that program. Until Bonds joins such power hitters as Juan Rincon, Rafael Betancourt, and Guillermo Mota, and fails a test, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. And your All-Star vote.

Tomorrow, I’ll turn to my AL ballot.

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