Commentary

Stephen Strasburg All-Star mistake

All-Star Game has veered from its glorious exhibition roots; How about a correction?

Updated: July 12, 2010, 12:54 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | ESPN.com

You had to love the Stephen Strasburg All-Star conversation, now a relic of the ancient past of sports yap-dom, for two essential reasons:

1. It had absolutely nothing to do with LeBron James at a time when any such alternate topic was desperately called for; and
2. It inadvertently shined a light in one of the places where Major League Baseball does not enjoy having a light shined. This illumination generally is a good thing.

In this case, the Strasburg cross-talk struck a nerve almost by accident. Once the essential grounds for denial had been established (too soon; too much fallout from the veterans; not enough starts), there arose a question that, to my mind, still hasn't come close to being answered:

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Mark Goldman/Icon SMIImagine an American League hitter seeing Stephen Strasburg pitch for the first time in an All-Star Game.

What if Charlie Manuel had added Strasburg to the roster because he wanted his league to win?

It isn't the craziest notion in the world, after all. The National League hasn't won the All-Star Game since Bud Selig was wearing knickers. Manuel might just find himself needing a strikeout or two Tuesday night in order to preserve a late-game lead, and Strasburg, green lad that he is, nevertheless has racked up 61 such K's in the first 42 2/3 innings of his big league career.

A compelling case can be made that Stephen Strasburg bloody well ought to be on the National League roster simply because his 97 mph fastball and 90 mph changeup could be used to great effect against one of the American League hitters who has never seen either pitch from the Washington rookie. If a manager is trying to win the game, then Strasburg has to be considered, pure and simple.

And all of that, quite naturally, leads us back to the whole game-counts-for-something madness in the first place.

The All-Star Game has never been in a stranger situation than it is right now. On Selig's watch, and with all due respect to good intentions, this thing has become a schizophrenic, unruly mess.

On the one paw, the leagues' rosters have been bloated up to a fantastical 34 count apiece, evidently allowing for the addition of more "deserving" big leaguers while ratcheting up the pressure on guys like Manuel to somehow get most of them into the game.

On the other, they keep score -- and the score counts. Since 2003, one of sports' most enduring and classic exhibitions, a game that literally was drawn up specifically as a marketing tool, has been infused with the weird aroma of forced importance, with Selig and the owners decreeing that the winner of the All-Star Game receives home-field advantage in the World Series.

Seven years in, it's every bit as ridiculous a notion as it was when it was hatched. The Strasburg argument only throws that truth into a fresh bold relief.

This isn't a matter of making a case for Strasburg, by the way. If it somehow upsets the natural order of the baseball world for the fans to be allowed to watch the most headline-garnering rookie of the season pitch in the Midsummer Classic, then so be it. Deny the kid a shot, even though it's the fans who get robbed. Assuming Strasburg is what they say he is, he'll take plenty of strolls across the July stage in the years to come.

But think about it: Isn't Manuel supposed to try to win? Doesn't the NL want the home field for a theoretical World Series Game 7? I'd think that Manuel, the crusty ol' critter who gets the Phillies into a competitive frame of mind year after year, would do what he is supposed to do and play for the win -- and in that case, guys like Strasburg have value that belies their ages.

The mistake here isn't worrying over whether a rookie has earned his stripes; it's in giving this game any meaning in the first place beyond its birthright as the fans' fun night out. Baseball's All-Star Game has often been a glorious showcase for its elite talent. It works beautifully on that level. It's fun. It's relaxed. It is oohs and aahs from an appreciative crowd.

And the winner couldn't matter less. Except that Selig and his owners have declared that it does.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Manuel
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesCharlie Manuel will have plenty of good players, but Stephen Strasburg might have been good for a couple of key outs.

Home-field advantage in the World Series has to go to someone, which is why baseball's traditional system of alternating the leagues each year made a certain limited sense. I'd rather see the team with the best winning percentage over the regular season retain the advantage, since that at least conveys advantage based upon something other than the calendar. Others have argued that the team with the best interleague record should win the home field (flawed, but intriguing as a concept).

Any of those determinations would be better than masquerading the All-Star Game as a mini playoff. Watch Manuel and Joe Girardi trying furiously to jockey 28 or 30 players into the action on Tuesday, and you'll have no choice but to conclude that the game can't possibly be forced into meaningfulness when its very creation in 1933 was as a pure exhibition.

Strasburg? Ultimately, he's an argument for some other day. First things first: Take the All-Star Game back to its harmless roots. This is entertainment. Everybody plays. All the pitchers who can throw will throw. And two days after that, after the stars take their bows, the competition in baseball resumes in earnest. As it ever was.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the top 10 sports books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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