Sunday, July 8, 2012

Some Suggestions for Improving Baseball's All Star Game

Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, and Reggie Jackson after the epic 1971 Midsummer Classic

For a long time, major league baseball had the best all-star game of any of the professional sports.  Much of this had to do with the distinctiveness of the American and National Leagues, and the fact that apart from the World Series, players from these leagues never got to play each other.  As a young baseball game in the 1980s, I lived to see the likes of Dwight Gooden pitching to Don Mattingley, and rooted hard for the National League.  (Although I was then a Royals fan and am now a White Sox fan, I feel that the National League plays a subtler and more sophisticated version of the game.)  The coming of inter-league play in the 1990s blunted the excitement of the All-Star Game, since fans got to see the best players from each league play each other on a regular basis.  Those games were pretty exciting back then, but today even the Cubs-Sox inter-league matches have become just another set of games.  And that's one of the more compelling match ups; are baseball fans really itching to see the Mariners take on the Padres or the Astros play the Blue Jays?

Just as the enchantment of a game bringing the leagues together has faded, players seem to take the All-Star Game less seriously.  In recent years there have been many high-profile cases of players who aren't even really injured sitting the game (and the home run derby) out.  This is quite a turn of events.  As a child I never could have imagined the "Midsummer Classic" turn into the baseball equivalent of an unpopular boss's wedding shower.

As the father of two newly born children, I want them to grow up in a better world.  As part of that, wouldn't it be nice if the baseball all-star game was great again?  In that spirit, here are a few suggestions that I know will never be undertaken because baseball is run by the kind of hidebound squareheads who make the Catholic church's hierarchy look positively forward-looking.  At least I can dream.

End practice of including a player from each team
The whole point of an "all star" team is that all of its players ought to be, for lack of a better word, "stars."  Major league baseball, however, has mandated that each team be represented, which often means that many of the players are not stars, but merely above average, if that.  I guess the rationale for this policy is to attract viewers from all of the teams' fan bases, but the results are often patently ridiculous, and make a mockery of the game as an "all star" game.  Back in 2003, the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates sent their closer Mike Williams, who up to that point in the season had compiled a 6.44 ERA, which was not just below average, but abysmal.  Were Pirates fans really not going to tune in if Williams didn't play?  I also feel that players would take the game more seriously and see it as more of an honor if it was harder to get in.  To wit:

Limit the rosters to 27 players
This will make the all-star teams more exclusive and more "star" like, and will also make them more like real baseball teams playing a real baseball game.  The current rosters have ballooned to 33 players, which is just ridiculous.  I do like the recent innovation that the fans get to choose the last player in an online poll, and I would recommend letting them choose the 27th player on the roster.  However, I think it would be great for the players to have a voice in all-star selection, and they should get to vote on the 26th player.

Let the managers manage
There has been a recent tendency in the All-Star Game to give every player on both teams a chance to enter the game, which makes the games feel especially artificial and ridiculous, and the managers responsible less for winning and more for making sure everyone gets their turn.  This tendency led to the infamous 2002 game that ended in a tie when the teams ran out of players in extra innings.  Managers should not feel the need to put all the players in, but manage like a real manager and use the players accordingly.  Would a manager in a real game send in Billy Butler to bat for Prince Fielder?  (No offense to Butler, who's having a solid season for both the Royals and one of my fantasy teams.)  Do fans want to see that?  They want to see the best players in the game in a true competition with each other.  Making the all-star game for like a real game will make it more exciting for all involved.

Stop using the all-star game result to determine home field advantage in the World Series
Recently, in an effort to draw more fan attention, the MLB tried to make the all-star game "count" by using the winner to determine which league's representative gets home field advantage in the World Series.  (In previous years, it had just rotated back and forth.)  This move insultingly suggested that the game did not "count" before, and still makes home field advantage just as arbitrary as it was before.  (The all-star game used to count for a lot. Back in the 1950s and 1960s the American League was slower to integrate than the National League, the black NL players gunned to embarrass the American League, which they did on multiple occasions.  In 1970, Peter Rose risked injury by crashing hard into Ray Fosse at the plate.)   Based on the number of players bowing out of the game recently, the new "making the game count" wrinkle does not appear to have made it more competitive.  Scrap the whole thing, and shift home field advantage to the league whose teams performed best in inter-league play.  That will better reflect the strength of each league, make them more competitive against each other, and perhaps even add a little drama to those dreadful Mariners-Astros games.

Change the all-star break
A lot can be done to sculpt the days around the All-Star Game to make it more interesting and meaningful.  The NBA has done a great job of creating a whole weekend around their game, which is often the least meaningful component.  The MLB should add some things, and cut some others.  In the first place, the home run derby the day before ought to be eliminated, as many players already decline to participate, and it celebrates the narrow, power-focused version of baseball that reigned in the Steroid Era that must finally be consigned to the past.  Instead, the first round of the baseball draft should be held during the All Star break, which would generate more buzz around both the draft and the game.  I think there should also be an extra day added onto the break, giving participants an extra day of rest, which will encourage pitchers to participate more fully.  For that reason, the free day should come after the game.

Make the TV coverage more appealing
The All-Star Game ought to be a showcase for baseball, but it often takes so much time getting to the game that many at home switch channels rather than stick with it.  The pre-game hoopla seems to last forever, and extends the game past the bedtimes of younger viewers, baseball's future fan base.  Having smaller roster sizes with fewer players to announce will help with this, at least.  The first pitch must be thrown before 8Pm Eastern Time at the very latest.  Another issue is the fact that the game is on Fox, and is thus called by Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, perhaps the most excruciating announcing team in all of sports.  McCarver has become even crustier and crankier over the years, and Buck's nonchalance can drain the excitement out of any major sporting event.  I watch a lot of games on, and I have been happily surprised at the high quality of local baseball announcers across the board.  Any random team's hometown crew would be better than Buck and McCarver, but I would nominate a crew of Vin Scully and Steve Stone to handle the All-Star Game.

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