- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Complaining about the All-Star Game sure is fashionable these days. Maybe not as fashionable as hanging out with Lenny Kravitz. Or hugging the nearest Wimbledon runner-up. But in serious vogue nonetheless.
Well, here at World Rumblings Headquarters, we don't want to get lumped in with all those other All Star Game malcontents. Heck, we love the All-Star Game.
We love Workout Day and Home Run Derby. We love the pregame hullabaloo. We love The Classic itself.
Mariano Rivera will head to his ninth All Star Game next week. Can you name the only two active pitchers who have been selected to more All-Star teams than Rivera? (Answer later.)
Now we'd just like to do our part to make it bigger. And better. And hopefully more riveting than ever before. So we have some ideas.
But before we present them, we also want to make clear we understand what is never going to happen to "fix" the All-Star Game. Namely:
Pulling the plug on interleague play to restore its fabled "mystique;" dumping the fan voting; dumping the player voting; dumping internet voting; or telling all those pesky sponsors to take a hike so we can restore the "purity" of the game.
Sorry, gang. It's the 21st Century. And we're going to have to continue living in it.
But what can we do? How about these ideas:
1. Tweak the Derby
Is last year's Home Run Derby over yet? We can't remember. Did it last six hours -- or 60?
Hey, don't take this the wrong way. It's a fun event. And it's definitely a popular event -- so popular, in fact, that more people watch the Derby on the tube than watch your average division series game. And you can look that up. Unfortunately, the Home Run Derby, as currently constituted, has one tiny little flaw.
It's toooooo darneddddddd longgggggg.
So we have a simple, two-step proposal. We confess we've made it before, but it's always drawn universal acclaim. So we figure if we keep rolling it out there, somebody might even listen to us one of these decades.
Step 1: Go right from Round 1 to the finals. It's that middle round that drains all the momentum from this event and wears out the contestants. So bag it. Eight guys wail away in the first round. Then only the two best wailers advance. It's easy.
Step 2: Turn the finals into a true Duel of the Mashers, with a back-and-forth nine-inning "game." The first finalist gets three "innings" (or, as we used to know them, "outs"). Then it's the other finalist's turn.
They go back and forth for nine innings until somebody wins. And the result: Real, live drama as opposed to the current anticlimax delivered by the misguided 10-outs-apiece format. Let these guys alternate hacks and you'll get the same mano a mano ebb and flow that the Slam Dunk Contest is so famous for -- not to mention the same feel that a great baseball game is famous for.
We've never run this idea past anybody (including our friends at MLB) who didn't love it. So why aren't they doing it already?
2. More voting fun
We don't know about you, but we're tired of all the grumbling about these All-Star rosters. So the fans don't elect the "perfect" lineups. So what? There's no such thing.
And the players and managers don't always select the "perfect" reserves, you say? No kidding. That's impossible, too.
However we assemble these rosters, three things are true: (A) It won't be ideal, (B) we'll leave somebody out and (C) despite all that, most of the greatest players on earth are still going to wind up on the field. So relax out there.
But that doesn't mean we can't make the art of roster selection more fun and creative. How? Well, one thing we've noticed about this sport lately: It's never met a fan-voting opportunity it didn't love. So you like elections? We've got lots of cool election ideas.
Why confine the final-week election fun to just The 32nd Man balloting? Here are five more voting attractions we'd love to see:
• Living legend: It would have been uncomfortable for everyone if Ken Griffey Jr. had been elected to start this game. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be super-cool to let him be part of this game. So we'd like to propose that two players with distinguished careers win a special roster spot every year. How about this possible NL Living Legends ballot: Griffey, Omar Vizquel, Greg Maddux, Jamie Moyer, Randy Johnson. Would that work?
• Set-up man: It's outrageous to invite 64 players to an All Star Game and not have one of them be a trusty bullpen set-up man. How can this be? The Cubs' Carlos Marmol has allowed 23 hits in 50 innings. He's not an All-Star. Seattle's Brandon Morrow has a 0.65 ERA as a set-up dominator and (these days) emergency closer. He's not an All-Star. "These guys are throwing such important innings," says Phillies closer Brad Lidge. "It makes sense to give them a little credit." We agree. So let's have a set-up-man election. Here's our sample AL ballot: Morrow, Baltimore's Jim Johnson (1.88 ERA), the White Sox's Scott Linebrink (1.95), the Rays' Dan Wheeler (2.43) and (just for fun) Joba Chamberlain. "People who really know baseball," said Lidge, "would really appreciate that election." Absolutely.
• Designated left-hander: We weren't going to make this a separate category from set-up man, but Mets closer Billy Wagner convinced us. "I want my left-handed specialist," he said the other day. So why the heck not? Let's give those Will Ohmans (left-handers hitting .147), Matt Thorntons (.113) and J.P. Howells (.164) their due -- or at least their place on this ballot. After all, the game counts, right? So why not give the managers a chance to manage it like it counts?
• Super-utility whiz: The NFL has a Pro Bowl spot for its special-teams stars. So why not honor the Mark DeRosas of this sport? We've always thought of DeRosa as being as Devin Hester-like as baseball players get, anyway. Jerry Crasnick had no trouble assembling a Starting 9 of super-utility dynamos recently. So how tough would it be to come up with a decent ballot?
• The Derby-ites: Finally, we've never understood why the Home Run Derby was confined just to players who make the All Star team (except when baseball feels like inviting someone else). Let fans vote for the Derby bombers, too, regardless of whether they made that other roster. We'd submit this ballot: Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn, Lance Berkman, Jason Giambi and CC Sabathia. Aw, just a thought.
3. Make the break "National Baseball Week"
We've always wanted the All-Star break to feel more like a summertime version of that week between Christmas and New Year's -- a week to kick back, evict all other sporting distractions from your brain and celebrate what baseball means to summer in America.
"I want the All-Star break to be a whole week," Wagner told Rumblings. "One good thing about that is, that way nobody can say, 'This guy pitched Sunday, so he can't pitch.' Everybody would be available."
Now there's an awesome idea. Unfortunately, it can't possibly happen because teams won't give up those big weekend dates at home -- and it's almost impossible to add an entire week of off days to the schedule and still finish the World Series before Thanksgiving.
But we'd still like to see some version of it. In World Baseball Classic years, we'd like to import the WBC semifinals and finals and play them the same week as the All Star Game, in the same ballpark. In non-WBC years, we'd propose this schedule:
Monday: An entirely new Futures Game, matching a team of great minor league prospects against a team of first-year and second-year big leaguers. If David Price strikes out Jacoby Ellsbury in prime time, wouldn't that be a bigger ratings magnet and bigger conversation piece than Julio Pimentel whiffing Andrew McCutchen at 12:40 on a Sunday afternoon?
Tuesday: An entirely new Workout Day, with a Derby-esque tale-of-the-tape gimmick. We'd measure every BP home run. Then the player who hits the longest bomb wins a car -- but also wins two more cars, for some lucky fan in the stadium and some lucky fan watching on TV. It wouldn't be an actual Home Run Derby, since the batting cages would be in place and everybody on the rosters would get to participate. But it would sure be a fun night in front of the old TV set.
I want the All-Star break to be a whole week. One good thing about that is, that way nobody can say, 'This guy pitched Sunday, so he can't pitch.' Everybody would be available.
Wednesday: Home Run Derby, using the new format we laid out earlier.
Thursday: All-Star Game.
Friday: Travel day.
Saturday-Sunday: Resume the season with Rivalry Weekend (Cubs-Cardinals, Yankees-Red Sox, Dodgers-Giants, etc.). We could even throw in some interleague duels (Orioles-Nationals, Astros-Rangers, etc.).
Yeah, we know people could poke holes in this plan. But our suspicion is the baseball fans of America would love it. So tell us what you think, and give us your other ideas. Send them all to firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll report back with the best suggestions in some future Rumblings.
Ready to rumble
• Now what?: With CC Sabathia and Rich Harden off the board, the Phillies and Yankees might rank as the two teams with the most motivation to deal for what's left of the starting-pitching market. But they both seemingly have almost nowhere to turn.
Both teams made runs at Sabathia. But even though the Phillies offered more bodies than Milwaukee, they lacked the position-player centerpiece Cleveland was looking for. And the Yankees U-turned once the Indians turned down their request for a negotiating window. Neither team, meanwhile, got aggressive on Harden. But now both find themselves unsure of where to find another, more affordable arm.
The buzz in Philadelphia is that GM Pat Gillick has convinced ownership to take on a big contract if the right starting pitcher falls into their zip code. We're not sure how hard that was, but even the most skeptical members of a conservative ownership group can't help but see that the Phillies aren't going anywhere without a high-impact starter. Then again, Sabathia was the guy they'd targeted. Yet they wouldn't talk about either their best minor league arm, Carlos Carrasco, or their most advanced position player, catcher Lou Marson, in those Sabathia discussions. So without altering that stance, they might not even have the ammunition to get a second-tier starter. Phillies executives have been telling people they're wary of both Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett. But at this point, they have no choice but to stalk both of them.
The Yankees, on the other hand, don't seem interested in Bedard. And it's dubious Toronto would even talk to them about Burnett. While they've checked out Aaron Harang, he might be untradeable now that his forearm has a date with an MRI machine. Can Melky Cabrera net them a decent arm? Clubs that have spoken with the Yankees say he's the player they're most willing to dangle. One thing the Yankees can't do, even if they fall apart, is sell. Virtually every veteran player on the roster has a no-trade clause.
• How you spell A.J.: The Blue Jays have had "about four hits" on Burnett, according to one baseball man who investigated. But Toronto has nothing of consequence going at the moment. While that figures to change now that Sabathia and Harden are off the shelves, the Blue Jays have been telling teams they project Burnett to be a Type A free agent, so they'd expect the equivalent of those two high-end compensation picks in return. But they've also said they have no preferences on age, position or level of development on the players they'd get back.
Two of the biggest areas of confusion other clubs have on Burnett are A) whether he'll opt out of the last two years (and $24 million) of his contract and B) whether his limited no-trade would be an obstacle. But friends of Burnett are saying he's likely to opt out, no matter where he ends up, unless he isn't healthy, on the theory that he'll rake in more total dollars based on length of contract alone. And on that no-trade, one GM says Toronto told him Burnett can block a deal only to a "handful" of teams. But another source says Burnett's no-trade allows him to name 15 teams.
• Dodgeball: The other team that made a major charge on Sabathia was the Dodgers. What's interesting is that, now that they've lost out, there's no indication that the Dodgers have been in on any other starting pitchers on the market. Asked if that could change, an official of one team who talked to them replied: "Depends on what happens with Brad Penny."
The Dodgers' primary shopping mission continues to be to find a shortstop who could either supplant or complement Nomar Garciaparra until Rafael Furcal's status becomes clearer. Clubs we've surveyed say they've been less aggressive on that front than they've been portrayed, although they've checked in on a group that includes Jack Wilson, Juan Uribe and David Eckstein. It's possible they might just shop for a part-timer, along the lines of the Cubs' Ronny Cedeno.
• The ex in Tex: Teams that have checked in with Atlanta about the availability of Mark Teixeira have been told the Braves aren't hanging any "For Sale" signs until at least the end of next week. If they can hang close in the East through the first series after the All-Star break, then Teixeira stays and they're likely to resume their efforts to add a bat (with Xavier Nady now clearly at the top of their wish list). But if the Braves slide any further, they'll almost certainly conclude they're too banged up to make a run, and the Teixeira auction will begin. The Braves would be likely to start that bidding by asking for a young first baseman who could replace him.
The sad part is Teixeira is a guy they'd love to keep, and Teixeira never acts like a player who wants to leave. But Scott Boras has already sent signals that the free-agent asking price on Teixeira this winter will start at $23 million a year (theoretically for eight to 10 years). So the Braves know the one thing certain about Teixeira's trip through free agency is that it won't end with a return to Atlanta. Which will only make them more prone to hit the "ejector" button in this month if they think they can't win.
• No Cain do: We keep hearing people speculate about the Giants trading Matt Cain. But we can't find a team that has gotten anywhere in its attempts to even get the Giants to discuss him. "I don't know who got that rumor rolling," said an official of one club. "But they told us, emphatically, no."
• Bird land: As the Orioles continue to dance around .500, their interest in unloading players -- even veteran players -- seems to diminish by the day. Once upon a time, for instance, they traded for George Sherrill with the thought of spinning him before the deadline. Six months later, says an executive of one club, "they told us they're not motivated to move him now." There are still a few random pieces for sale -- Chad Bradford and Kevin Millar, for instance. But finishing .500 has never felt more important in Baltimore than it seems to feel this year.
• Something brewing: Had the Brewers not landed the biggest 290-pound fish in the trading pond, we're hearing they wouldn't have turned to Harden as Plan B. Their target was the Royals' Zack Greinke. That's a moot point now. But as the Brewers turn their attention to adding an impactful bullpen arm next, they wouldn't be crazy to make a run at Greinke in that role, too. His bullpen splits last year were definite closer material (.226 opponent avg., .282 OBP, .332 SLG). "For some reason, as a starter, he's been only a six-inning guy," one scout said. "It just seems like he doesn't have the mindset or the durability to finish games. When I look at him, I have no doubt he could be a real good closer. It would just depend on the fit for the club."
• Leaning left: Don't be positive the Cubs are through dealing for a starting pitcher. Lou Piniella's preference is to have two left-handers in his rotation. So if Sean Marshall doesn't meet the manager's expectations, it wouldn't be out of the question for the Cubs to take another look at someone like Randy Wolf.
• LaPorta authority: As we surveyed various clubs about the CC Sabathia deal, it was interesting to hear the split among AL and NL teams about the centerpiece player, Matt LaPorta. Most AL teams see him as the middle-of-the-order, next-Travis-Hafner-type bat the Indians envision him to be. NL teams, on the other hand, focus more on his lack of a true position. And one NL executive said he isn't even sold on LaPorta's bat.
"I've seen him since college, and I've never been a Matt LaPorta guy," the scout said. "I think he's just going to be a Kevin Mench type. Stiff actions, with power obviously. But not real athletic. I sure don't see him the way they see him."
• One down, one to go: Brad Lidge's three-year, $37.5-million extension in Philadelphia knocks one of the hottest free-agent closer names off many teams' shopping lists. But while the other marquee closer on those lists, Francisco Rodriguez, is focused on a four-year deal, Lidge told Rumblings that extra year wasn't important enough for him to bail out on a place where he'd finally found happiness.
"I'm sure K-Rod will get a lot of years, and probably a lot of dollars," Lidge said. "But my goal wasn't to get the most years and the most money. That's not me. I like it here. This works, for me and my family. And that's what matters most."
But don't expect the Phillies' other impending free agent, Pat Burrell, to be the next to sign. We're hearing that the Phillies' extension conversation with Burrell's agent, Greg Genske, was short and not real sweet. It's hard to envision the Phillies offering more than two years and around $20 million to Burrell. And that's not even close to what Burrell and Genske have in mind.
• My oh Myers: The Phillies may well look to trade Brett Myers, but it won't be in midseason. And Myers might still feel like his future is in the bullpen, but now that Lidge has signed, that bullpen gig clearly won't be in Philadelphia. So while Myers is confused about his future, the one report this week that appears to have zero substance is former Phillies closer Ricky Bottalico's suggestion that Myers wants to be traded.
"You can say a lot of things about Brett, but you can't say that," one of Myers' friends told Rumblings. "In fact, getting traded is one of his biggest fears. To be honest, I still think he doesn't ever want to leave the Phillies."
• The new Mets: If you get the impression the Mets are a more relaxed outfit under Jerry Manuel than they were under Willie Randolph, you're catching on.
"I don't want to bash Willie, because I liked him," Billy Wagner said. "But before, it was more of The Yankee Way. It wasn't The Mets Way. There was no facial hair. You could never have music in the clubhouse. You couldn't have kids around. Believe it or not, some of us in here actually like kids."
Manuel, on the other hand, has loosened all those reins and told his players to "play hard, play fearless and have fun," Wagner said, and to stop worrying about results.
"You know what?" Wagner said. "We've found out it's pretty easy to play when you stop playing for stats and just go out and play hard and play to have fun."
• Check your schedules: How entertaining would it be if the NL Central came down to two Sabathia-Harden duels in September? Could happen. Those teams play six of their final 13 games against each other, including three in Milwaukee in the final weekend.
Curious about the potential out-of-division impact of these two trades? The Marlins and Diamondbacks don't have to worry about Sabathia because the Brewers are finished with both of them. The Cubs, on the other hand, have games left against every out-of-division contender except the Dodgers. So Harden could help determine more than just the Central's fate. The Cubs play the Marlins seven times in the second half. And the Fish no doubt remember they scored just one run -- on a Dan Uggla solo homer -- off Harden in 5 2/3 innings in an interleague game three weeks ago.
Around the horn
• Radar gun stunner of the week: Thirteen months ago, Phillies left-hander R.J. Swindle was pitching in the Atlantic League. Monday, he made his big league debut and might have set some kind of record -- for slowest radar gun reading by a non-knuckleballer. He threw five pitches clocked slower than 60 miles per hour, topping (or is that bottoming?) out at 54 on a strikeout of Carlos Delgado. Asked if he'd ever seen a non-knuckleball register below the speed limit before, one scout replied: "Not until now. My kid threw 39 the other day, so at least he's 15 miles an hour faster than him."
• Quote of the week: From CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt on whether he was concerned about switching from the American League to the National League:
"I'm more worried about my [batting] average going down."
• Vulture of the week: That term "winning pitcher" isn't always the most revealing phrase in baseball. But, as loyal reader Pat Berger observes, it looked especially dubious when hung on Mets reliever Pedro Feliciano on Saturday. He allowed a game-tying single to the only hitter he faced (Jayson Werth), but lucked out when Werth got thrown out trying to advance to second and the Mets then scored three runs a half-inning later to make Feliciano a winner. Feliciano was the first winning pitcher to give up a run-scoring hit to the only hitter he faced since Dan Schatzeder on May 11,1987 -- and just the fourth in the past 52 years.
• Rain delayers of the week: Ever wondered how big leaguers kill a 2-hour, 50-minute rain delay? Now it can be told. Mets relievers Aaron Heilman, Scott Schoeneweis and Billy Wagner spent all 170 minutes of their never-ending delay Sunday in Philadelphia building a boat. They used water bottles, nail files and Slim Jims to construct the hull, and cut holes in aspirin packs to serve as the sails.
"We were down there so long," Wagner quipped, "we were going to go down and see if the Phillies [bullpen] wanted to have a boat race. Whoever wins gets to go home."
• Quiz show of the week: The sports-humor site sportspickle.com featured a poll last week asking readers to name the most memorable moment in Tampa Bay Rays' history. Our favorite choice:
1998: The team signs Fred McGriff after Tom Emanski refuses the manager job.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.