Commentary

Stop the All-Star Game madness

Originally Published: July 14, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Now that we are at a safe distance, seven years removed from the Misery in Milwaukee, when the All-Star Game ended in an 11-inning, 7-7 tie because both teams ran out of players and baseball went into full-scale panic, it is time for the sport to return to its senses, and cease and desist with the nonsense of attaching the All-Star Game to home-field advantage in the World Series.

Immediately.

It was a dumb idea then, a typical overreaction to a one-year aberration, an overreach to address forces beyond the game's control. And it continues to be a dumb and dangerous idea now.

Leave it to baseball to transform the Midsummer Classic into the worst oxymoron in sports: the meaningful exhibition.

[+] Enlarge2002 All-Star Game
AP Photo/Darren HauckBaseball went into panic mode in 2002, when Bud Selig canceled the end of the All-Star Game over a lack of available players in extra innings.

But at least it came with a catchy ad slogan: "This time, it counts."

Except for the tie in 2002, the American League has won 11 straight All-Star Games. The last time the National League won was in 1996, a 6-0 shutout in Philadelphia. These outcomes are no big deal, generally, except for the Americans' enjoying bragging rights over the Nationals during offseason golf tournaments.

But under the current system, adopted in 2003 to give the exhibition game "meaning," the AL has held an important advantage. It hasn't lost, which means the NL has started a step behind in the World Series every year since 2003 for the crime of losing the only game of the season that is supposed to be only about fun and showcasing the product.

Fortunately for the NL, the two leagues have split the six World Series played under this format, but that is hardly the point. The question is this: Why does baseball believe this is necessary?

Who, really, is being cheated by this nonsense? The NL fans have lost the chance to have a fourth World Series home game. The NL teams have lost the luxury of hosting a Game 7. The players in the All-Star Game get cheated because they are forced to make unnecessary choices. For example, by not playing in Tuesday night's game so he can be with his pregnant wife, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia -- the reigning AL MVP, mind you -- just might be the difference between the Red Sox' playing Game 7 of the World Series on the road or at Fenway Park. And the owners of NL World Series teams have been cheated, or could have been: They've lost the potential of a lucrative World Series home date six years in a row because players from other teams lost an All-Star Game that isn't supposed to count.

Again, baseball has lucked out so far, as there hasn't been a deciding Game 7 in the World Series under the current format. The last seven-game Series was in 2002.

The NL already has been at a disadvantage in the World Series ever since the AL began including the designated hitter position on rosters in 1973. The AL spends an average of $7.2 million on a position NL teams don't build into their player payrolls. In 2007, when the Red Sox swept the Rockies in the World Series, David Ortiz ($13 million a year) was in the lineup for Boston, while Ryan Spilborghs ($330,000 a year) was the Rockies' DH.

Advantage, AL.

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AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIf the game didn't mean anything without home-field advantage in the World Series attached to it, why was this fan so upset when the 2002 game ended in a tie?

After the 2002 All-Star Game, commissioner Bud Selig rightly recognized the event was losing its appeal to the players. Many stars had come to prefer a couple of days off to playing another baseball game in the heat of July. Selig also recognized that, as with all-star games in other sports, fans might have been losing interest, and apparently he thought artificial meaning might help. That hasn't happened. Television ratings for the All-Star Game haven't changed significantly since 2002; if anything, they've been lower since the home-field advantage wrinkle was added. The 2002 tie rated a 9.5. In 2003, the first year of "This time, it counts," the game drew the same rating. And it hasn't been that high since.

Though it was the All-Star Game that baseball felt required rehabilitation, there are other, more sensible ways to settle the question of home field in the World Series, far better than the current setup or it's predecessor, alternating years. Giving home field to the team with the best record is obvious and gives the regular season additional meaning in a time when it has been weakened by the wild card.

It isn't player apathy that has diminished the appeal of the All-Star Game as much as emerging media technology. Back in the simple old days of three television networks and no Internet, the All-Star Game was largely the only chance for fans to watch players from the other league. This was especially true in single-team markets such as Boston and Seattle, where the closest NL team is at least a four-hour drive away -- or in Seattle's case, two hours by plane -- and the only opportunity fans had to see Mike Schmidt or Steve Carlton or Tony Gwynn came at the All-Star Game. Even the old NBC game of the week -- much like NBA broadcasts -- focused on a narrow subset of teams: Cubs-Cardinals, Yankees-Red Sox or Dodgers-Giants.

Technology changed all that. DirecTV and cable television now offer virtually every game, every night. Fans can watch games from their computers. An AL fan doesn't have to wait for the second Tuesday in July to see an NL player, or vice versa. Now it happens all the time, every year. The magic is gone.

Selig also considers interleague play one of his greatest accomplishments, yet he hasn't acknowledged its effect on the All-Star Game. Interleague games have diluted the necessity of seeing these players in the All-Star Game.

None of this is necessarily bad news. It is simply a sign of the times. The All-Star Game has been a casualty of progress, like pay phones.

But instead of letting the All-Star Game exist on its own terms, allowing the product to sell itself -- fans will still watch because these are stars, the best of the best, playing against each other -- baseball has undermined the integrity of the World Series.

Here's a question: If the game counts, why don't the stats?

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.