All-Star games celebrate our athletic heroes, who provide awe, suspense, and the opportunity to cheer for greatness. They give the best players the chance to step back from grueling seasons, to revel in their accomplishments, and simply entertain.
The NHL and NBA execute them well. The Pro Bowl is not far behind. All three frequently transform into offensive barrages, forsaking defense for scoring that brings fans to their feet. Off-the-backboard slam dunks, 360 goals, long touchdown passes all characterize these contests. It’s the one game that doesn’t count…except for in baseball, where the game matters.
Enter 2003, the advent of the “This time it counts” era. Fresh off a controversial 2002 All-Star Game, a stalemate halted in the 11th inning due to a scarcity of pitching, then-commissioner Bud Selig decided to mix things up. The midsummer classic would now determine home-field advantage in the World Series. Good-bye innocence, hello controversy.
Before we dive into the various faults of the system, let’s examine what is actually at stake. Overall, in all four major leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL), home teams have won well over 50% of their games in the past decade. Since 1969, squads enjoying home-field advantage generated eight of the nine World Series sweeps. In deciding game sevens of the Fall Classic, home teams boast 8-1 records since 1985.
Some, like the authors of the book Scorecasting, blame swayed umpires, citing that higher home-winning percentages lead to higher fan attendance (Good for MLB wink, wink). Others, such as Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, give us a more psychological perspective:
There’s a definite home-field advantage. If you’re playing against an American League team in the World Series, most likely you haven’t played at that park too often. You’re not as comfortable playing there. You don’t know how the ball bounces in certain ways. You don’t know how the ball carries in the outfield. So there are different ways on the playing surface it can be an advantage. Then you have your home fans who are going crazy, getting loud.
No matter the reason, whether numerical, devious, or mental, the point holds. It pays to play at home.
After a disastrous opening to this year’s voting, which featured Kansas City’s Omar Infante potentially starting at second base for the American League, fans managed to save face. Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros rallied to take the middle infield spot and, overall, the starting lineups aren’t terrible. So what exactly is the problem?
For starters, there was a good chance fans could falter and a .232 hitter with zero home runs would receive two at-bats. After all, four Kansas City Royals did garner enough votes to start and, at one point, the team held eight of the nine coveted positions. According to MLB president of business and media Bob Bowden: “Most players get 60 to 80 percent of their votes from their teams, but the Royals are on the high end of that. You are dealing with a great outpouring of support for this team, and you see it at the park, with [Online] traffic, and they’re now in the top 10 in merchandise sales.”
“So what?” you may say. After all, the Royals snapped a 29-year postseason drought, won the AL pennant, and came a run shy of a title last year. It makes sense that exciting, winning teams should be well represented. Except, the best individual players aren’t always on the best teams. And let’s remember, “This time it counts.”
With a one game determining a major postseason advantage, every at-bat matters. With starters generally playing at least into the fourth inning, MLB bestows a lot of power upon the fans.
Furthermore, with fixed starters, managers of respective teams enjoy less flexibility in creating matchups, a key element in determining the result of any single game.
Should fans hold this much influence on such an important outcome? Is this better than rewarding the team with the best overall record its proper bounty, as it’s done in seven-game finales in other sports? You be the judge.
While this year’s All-Star Game doesn’t feature a curtain-call for a game’s legend, the last three years have—Derek Jeter in 2014, Mariano Rivera in 2013, and Chipper Jones in 2012. Legends deserve their spotlight, right? Except:
Somebody remind Wainwright, if the Cardinals lose Game 7 of the World Series in the AL ballpark, that he grooved one for Jeter in Minnesota.
— Mike Puma (@NYPost_Mets) July 16, 2014
Adam Wainwright may be the first to admit it, but it’s doubtful he was the first to sacrifice himself for the occasion. We can recall Cal Ripken’s 2001 home run, delivered off a meatball served by Chan Ho Park. Ian Kinsler not laying out on a Chipper Jones’ infield single in 2012 also comes to mind.
Combine such moments with player participation withdrawals, the Tuesday date not allowing starters pitching on Sunday to participate, and players accepting that their team probably won’t make it to World Series, and questions of motivation arise. Do players really care to try their hardest? After all, teams award contract bonuses for all-star appearances, not performances at the event. Why not just sit back and enjoy the moment, in the midst of a taxing 162 game marathon?
The choice here appears obvious. Fan participation and special moments deserve to be parts of the process—but free of guilt. Instead of perverting the festivities with competition, MLB should renege its 2003 decision, allowing the MidSummer Classic to reclaim its proper laidback nature.