Commentary

All-Star Game getting the cold shoulder

Players backing out of Midsummer Classic threatens showcase event for baseball

Originally Published: July 11, 2011
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- Major League Baseball introduced a controversial initiative in 2003, giving home-field advantage in the World Series to the winning league in the All-Star Game. The move was based on the assumption that higher stakes would increase the tension, and the injection of something other than pride would be a natural ratings booster. The change would also reduce the likelihood of commissioner Bud Selig having to shrug his shoulders in response to another embarrassing Midsummer Classic tie.

But fixes to tradition come with a price, and that was readily apparent when National League manager Bruce Bochy rehashed his late roster revisions during Media Day before the 82nd All-Star Game.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
William Perlman/US PresswireDerek Jeter acknowledged the fans of New York after getting hit No. 3,000, but snubbed the fans who wanted him in the All-Star Game.

With big names bailing by the hour for Bahamas vacations, family cookouts or orthopedic consultations, Bochy was asked if he gave any thought to calling St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols with an invitation. True, Pujols is having a below-average season by his standards. But he's still the most prolific hitter of his generation, and he recently made it clear that he would have loved to play in Phoenix.

"I caught wind of it really late that Albert wanted to come here,'' Bochy said, "but I had pretty much made up my mind that I was going to go with the third catcher to give me flexibility.''

Roster flexibility by virtue of a third catcher. Now there's a slogan that's bound to keep fans riveted for nine innings.

No offense to Bochy, who has a mandate to win the game, or Arizona's Miguel Montero, a solid hitter who ranks third among big league catchers with a .796 OPS. But the aforementioned roster machinations tell you all you need to know about this year's All-Star festivities, which are taking place beneath a searing desert sun and a brilliant summer moon in Arizona.

If only there were a few more stars.

Before we focus on the players who will be participating at Chase Field on Tuesday night, it's telling to run down some of the names that won't. For a variety of reasons, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Chipper Jones, David Price, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Jose Reyes, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester and Matt Cain are among 16 players selected who will not be suiting up for the game.

A-Rod and Chipper are both recovering from knee surgery. Braun hasn't appeared in a game since July 2 because of a sore calf, and Reyes is on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. If you like your All-Stars ambulatory, it's impossible to fault any of them for not playing.

Jeter is in a bigger public relations bind. He backed out of the All-Star Game on Thursday, then went 5-for-5 against Tampa Bay on Saturday and became the 28th player to join the 3,000-hit club.

One report said that Jeter is "exhausted'' from his pursuit of 3,000 hits, even though he recently spent two weeks on the disabled list. At the very least, Jeter is depriving baseball of a welcome midsummer feel-good moment. At worst, he's slighting the paying customers and living by a different set of rules than most of his peers. It will be interesting to see whether fans send him a message by leaving him off their All-Star ballots if he's hitting .260 this time next year.

Then there's Chicago Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who made a big rush to enhance his All-Star credentials, then declined a late invitation from Bochy. Ramirez told writers that he would have gone if asked Saturday night, but that Sunday was too late. Come again?

None of the players gathered here in Phoenix mentioned specific absentees by name, but they sounded a recurrent theme: Selection to an All-Star Game remains an honor, and players have an obligation to go if at all possible.

"

Braun I think no matter what you do to the selection process, there will always be people who should be here who aren't, and people who are here who probably shouldn't be.

" -- Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun

"I recall when I was a kid and seeing some guys who made All-Star teams and didn't go,'' Verlander said. "Not because of injury. They just didn't want to go. It kind of disappointed me. I remembered that and always said I would never do that if I ever made it.''

Making an All-Star team is a simple proposition, in theory. Perform well relative to your peers, get a handshake and a pat on the back from the manager and then confer with the wife to figure out the best use for that bonus. Do we go with the kitchen renovation or apply it toward the kids' private school tuition?

But Major League Baseball's selection process is so fragmented now, sometimes it seems as though the rules were drafted by the attorneys for Frank and Jamie McCourt.

The game is for the fans, of course, so they select the starters. Players have a say in the process when they vote for reserves. And when the players are finished, the managers for the incumbent World Series teams fill out the rosters -- while making sure all 30 teams are represented and competitive integrity is paramount.

This electoral bouillabaisse somehow gets it right most years. If anything, the arguments over snubs and omissions are usually more entertaining than the game.

"I think no matter what you do to the selection process, there will always be people who should be here who aren't, and people who are here who probably shouldn't be,'' Braun said. "I don't think there's anything you could ever do to get it all right.''

Even before the recent deluge of tight hamstrings and cold feet, there were built-in factors and blips on the radar screen that complicated the process.

Bad years for good players

In fairness, baseball took its lumps even before the recent deluge of bad news. Old standby Ichiro Suzuki ranks 54th among major league outfielders with a .640 OPS. Chase Utley didn't make his 2011 debut until late May because of a knee injury. Joe Mauer is hitting .243 in 31 games, and David Wright hasn't played since May because of a stress fracture in his back.

With Prince Fielder and Joey Votto finishing 1-2 in the fan balloting and Gaby Sanchez making the roster as Florida's lone All-Star representative, Pujols and Philadelphia's Ryan Howard both got lost in the shuffle at first base. Bochy is going with Carlos Beltran as the National League's designated hitter Tuesday.

No Sunday starters allowed

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireJustin Verlander pitched Sunday, making him ineligible to pitch in Tuesday's All-Star Game.

Bochy recalls managing the National League All-Star squad in 1999 and being told in advance that some pitchers who had worked on Sunday would be available for duty Tuesday. Then the game drew near, and a couple of those starters suddenly weren't so enthused. Whether they actually felt achy or their teams told them it might be a good idea to take the night off, it's impossible to say.

To avoid a similar scenario, MLB now has a blanket rule that All-Star pitchers who throw Sunday are out of the equation. But some affected All-Stars are less than wild about the directive. Hamels is planning to throw his regular bullpen session Tuesday, and joked that he might switch jerseys with Phillies teammate and fellow lefty Cliff Lee if it will allow him to get in the game.

"When you come here, you want to play,'' Hamels said. "I have to throw a bullpen anyway. It's only one inning. It's not like I'm going out and throwing 60 pitches.

"This is one of one of those things where people that don't play the game make the rules. I don't think they understand what's going on with how we work out and how we train. Most of us are pretty smart. We're not going to injure ourselves in the All-Star Game and prevent ourselves from pitching in the regular season.''

Verlander, conversely, has no qualms about sitting out the All-Star Game after throwing 119 pitches against Kansas City amid temperatures approaching 100 degrees two days ago. The reality is, baseball's edict against Sunday starters appearing in the All-Star Game protects pitchers from their own competitive impulses.

"If they asked me to go out there, I would,'' Verlander said. "But I don't know if it's wise or not. This is a way to let people off the hook. Teams don't have to worry about us getting hurt or trying to do too much on a couple days rest.''

Covering all the bases

Michael Weiner, head of the players' association, said the mix of fan, player and manager picks reflects the inherent tug-of-war that exists in the All-Star Game.

[+] EnlargeBruce Bochy
Scott Rovak/US PresswireNational League manager Bruce Bochy didn't have an easy job figuring out his lineup and roster with all the players skipping the All-Star Game.

"What makes the baseball All-Star Game the best All-Star Game is it's not a pure exhibition like the other ones are,'' Weiner said. "It's an actual competition. But there's also a tension that exists when you're trying to balance the promotional aspect versus the competitive aspect.''

The consensus is that fans are making more informed choices now with so much information readily available on the Internet. As for the players, some are more diligent than others in making smart picks. Baseball distributes the player ballots in late June, when candidates have had almost three months to build their cases, so there's no excuse for players to get it wrong.

"Most guys take it pretty serious,'' Berkman said. "You don't want to put somebody in there that's not deserving.''

If Braun could make a change, he said it would be to remove managers from the decision-making process. That would help save Bochy from the criticism he received when he picked Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong over Atlanta's Tommy Hanson recently in rounding out his pitching staff.

"It just puts managers in an extremely difficult position,'' Braun said. "If you don't take your own guys who are deserving, then you have a player on your team who's mad at you for the whole second half.''

As a hybrid exhibition/competition, the All-Star Game will always be rife for tinkering. Some free thinkers have advocated a U.S. team vs. the World squad, the way they do it in the Futures Game. And Berkman, no fan of expanding All-Star teams as a hedge against 16-inning games, has brainstormed his own solution as an antidote to roster creep.

"If they want to do something creative and they're worried about extra innings, then say, 'If it's tied at the end of nine, we're going to a Home Run Derby,''' Berkman said. "Then pick three or four guys on each team and let them go at it. The fans would eat that up. It would be incredible.''

One step at a time. Baseball fans in Phoenix and the folks watching on TV will be happy with an entertaining game sans many of the game's top names this year. Hey, Woodstock did OK without the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and the Byrds. Anything's possible.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer