- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It's impossible to say precisely how the 2012 All-Star Game and subsequent World Series will unfold. But for the sake of making a point, we've dreamed up one potential scenario:
The National League takes an early lead on a three-run homer by Pablo Sandoval, who made the team only because San Francisco Giants fans went gaga with boosterism to push him past David Wright in the balloting. The American League rallies in the middle innings, but the NL pulls away when David Freese goes deep off Yu Darvish in a battle of "Final Man" vote winners. The NL also benefits from some late clutch hitting by the Chicago Cubs' Bryan LaHair, who made it on the players' ballot as a backup first baseman even though he hasn't played the position since Chicago summoned prospect Anthony Rizzo from the minors two weeks ago. It's an exhilarating moment for LaHair, who will be traded in late July as the Cubs retrench on their way to a 100-loss season.
Fast-forward 3½ months from now, and the impact of the NL's victory will be felt in Pittsburgh, when outfielder Andrew McCutchen leads the Pirates to an improbable Game 7 victory against the star-crossed Rangers before a raucous crowd at PNC Park. It marks the third straight year Texas has lost the World Series without the benefit of home-field advantage, and the second straight season the Rangers have dropped Game 7 in the visiting park.
Welcome to the 10th annual installment of MLB's "This One Counts" initiative. Commissioner Bud Selig's baby has reached the preadolescent stage, and it's either a welcome innovation or the most harebrained scheme in the history of mankind, depending on which radio talk show host you favor.
We all know the genesis for the current system. Ten years ago in Milwaukee, Major League Baseball suffered the mother of all embarrassments when managers Joe Torre and Bob Brenly ran out of pitchers in the 11th inning on the way to a 7-7 tie at Miller Park. In a precursor to the Southwest Airlines "Wanna Get Away?" campaign, Selig threw his arms in the air in consternation in a photo that proved to be the bane of his existence.
"I did the only thing I could at the time," Selig told ESPN's Jim Caple in a subsequent interview. "It broke my heart."
Long story short: Baseball, with significant prodding from its broadcast partners at Fox and the approval of the players' association, decided to imbue the All-Star Game with a renewed sense of importance by raising the stakes. Since 2003, the league that wins the All-Star Game has been granted home-field advantage for the World Series.
You can argue that the change has resulted in a more competitive and enjoyable Midsummer Classic. Of the first nine games under the system, seven have been decided by one or two runs. In 2003, Hank Blalock's eighth-inning home run off the indomitable Eric Gagne gave the AL a 7-6 victory and World Series home field. Five years later, the AL beat the NL 4-3 in 15 innings to give Yankee Stadium a fittingly dramatic sendoff.
Selig continues to embrace the idea with fervor. He maintains that players have a greater incentive to come to the game, cheer on their teammates and truly care about the result. It's impossible to quantify emotional investment. But at the very least, players seem to have fewer cockamamy alibis for staying home.
As Selig points out -- accurately -- the previous system wasn't exactly "Einstein's Theory of Relativity." MLB simply alternated home-field advantage from one year to the next.
"Years ago, we ran into a period where there were a lot of players who tried to find excuses, didn't want to play," Selig said during a recent Fox conference call. "We haven't had any of that. Some people were critical of 'This Time it Counts.' I think it has worked well and worked well right from the beginning. You see players now who are happy to go."
But in too many ways for comfort, the system seems contrived and self-serving to the exclusion of what truly matters. Take an annual midsummer tradition that's lost some of its cachet, attach artificial significance to it and interest is likely to increase. But should three hours in July play such a pivotal role in determining the course of baseball history each autumn? It's sort of like deciding the presidential election on which candidate delivered the most stirring stump speech in an Iowa corn field on Labor Day.
Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones is qualified to speak on the topic for several reasons. He played in five All-Star Games before "This One Counts" and he's about to appear in his third since the change. He understands the importance of a comfortable bed and a supportive crowd during the World Series. And he's brutally honest -- to the point that you wonder if his energy drinks are spiked with truth serum.
For the record, Jones does not think the intensity of All-Star Games is appreciably different now than it was before 2003. And he is troubled by the thought of placing so much emphasis on a game with only symbolic importance. He even dares to utter the "e" word.
"To be honest, the players still treat it as an exhibition game," Jones said. "If you want to really ride everything on it, take the nine best players from each league and let them go at it for nine innings. Don't give them an at-bat here and an at-bat there, or an inning here and an inning there, because that doesn't tell you anything. If you want to put so much on one game, then you have to have the elite of the elite play all nine innings and have your manager fill in the cracks as you go."
A gimmick with a price
MLB has a lot of fresh, exciting storylines to sell at Kauffman Stadium this week, with the presence of McCutchen, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Darvish and so many other gifted 25-and-under talents on the opposing rosters. At its core, the All-Star Game remains a marketing extravaganza, and MLB is hyping the event with head shots of the combatants and the accompanying declaration, "I Play for the (American or National) League. We Will Win."
Yet the stakes are extremely high. Since 1985, the team with home-field advantage has won 21 of 26 World Series. (The exceptions are the Braves in 1992 and '99, the 2003 Yankees, the 2006 Tigers and the 2008 Rays). And the past nine times the World Series has gone the distance, the home team has been victorious in every Game 7. You have to go all the way back to the 1979 "We Are Family" Pirates to find a team that won a Game 7 on the road.
The Cardinals and Rangers learned the importance of home field last year when the series shifted to St. Louis and the energy of Busch Stadium had a palpable effect on the proceedings. All you had to do was monitor Texas closer Neftali Feliz's body language in the ninth inning of Game 6.
"It's definitely hard to swallow when one game can determine home-field advantage," Texas pitcher Matt Harrison said. "You work so hard to get to that point. You may have 10 to 12 more wins than the other team. They may be the wild card and they'll have home-field advantage because of what happened in the All-Star Game. It definitely makes a difference."
And even if you believe that the system has laid the groundwork for tighter games, it isn't having much of an impact on the Nielsen ratings. The All-Star Game peaked with 36.3 million viewers and a 53 percent audience share in 1976, when national sensation Mark "The Bird" Fidrych started for the AL. By 1991, there were 24.6 million viewers and a 32 share. Last year, it was down to a record-low 11 million and a 12 share. Baseball's declining All-Star ratings mirror a similar pattern in other sports, but it's the only game that's gone to the extreme of propping up its signature midseason showcase in such a radical way.
We surveyed about a dozen general managers and executives for their opinions on the All Star Game-World Series link, and the response was all over the map. A few like the idea, some hate it, and several said they have more important things on their mind. But any general manager who's lived through a World Series in recent years is guaranteed not to be apathetic about it.
"I'd prefer not to have something so important decided by an exhibition game, especially when 90 percent of those participating won't be in the World Series," Texas GM Jon Daniels said in an email. "I'd rather see home field go to the team with the best record, or the team from the league that wins interleague play that season. Is there anything else in sports where an exhibition game has a direct impact on the championship round?"
St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, whose team benefited so dramatically from "This One Counts" in 2011, is more on board with the concept.
"Overall, I think it is a good thing," said Mozeliak, also by email. "If you are going to play the game then it should be treated as a competition, and I do believe our fans like to see a game that means something as well as getting to see their favorite players represent their home team."
Overhaul the voting
One of baseball's biggest problems is a desire to foster inclusion by spreading the wealth in the voting procedure. It encompasses fans, players, managers and fans for a second time. And lest we forget, players from all 30 teams must be represented at the All-Star Game.
This year we saw the added wrinkle of retired Cardinals manager Tony La Russa filling out the NL roster. When Reds fans went bonkers over the exclusion of Johnny Cueto and Brandon Phillips, La Russa was backed into a corner and Selig had to go to bat to defend his integrity. It was an inevitable byproduct of baseball trying to shoehorn so many factions into the process.
"I think it is ridiculous to have a fan vote, player vote, selections by manager and one additional by fans and then say, 'It Counts,'" said an NL executive who asked not to be identified. "You only have to look at the San Francisco ballot-stuffing to see this isn't right. It's fun, it should be fun, but it shouldn't count."
The executive suggested a revamp of the selection system to give fans a vote, and then weigh the input of an "insider panel" of voters that would include players, managers, coaches and executives to select a winner at each position. The opposing team managers would then select a handful of reserves and there would be an additional "Commissioner's Choice" to give fans an opportunity to say goodbye to the Chipper Joneses, Jim Thomes and Omar Vizquels of the world.
I think it is ridiculous to have a fan vote, player vote, selections by manager and one additional by fans and then say, 'It Counts.'
”-- An NL exec
Once the rosters are complete, the All-Star Game's credibility would almost certainly benefit from managers playing to win rather than trying to keep everybody happy. But recent events have shown that All-Star managers don't share Jones' fondness for an "elite versus the elite" smackdown. Consider this little historical comparison:
• In the infamous 2002 game at Miller Park that caused this entire sea change, Torre and Brenly combined to use 60 players, and Yankees catcher Jorge Posada was the only starter to stay in the game long enough to record three at-bats.
• In last year's game at Chase Field in Arizona, opposing managers Ron Washington and Bruce Bochy combined to use 60 players, and Milwaukee second baseman Rickie Weeks was the only starter to stay in the game long enough to record three at-bats. In both cases, the box score looked an awful lot like a spring "B" game in Surprise or Port St. Lucie.
So what are the alternatives to making the All-Star Game the be-all and end-all? MLB could rely on the results of interleague play to dictate World Series home field. The problem is, the AL has been so dominant, it would be a foregone conclusion. Since 2005, AL teams have 1,121 wins and 895 losses in interleague play for a .556 winning percentage. Whether it's the result of bigger payrolls or the designated hitter, AL supremacy has become a way of life each summer.
Baseball also has the option of awarding home-field advantage to the team with the best record. Selig and MLB contend that the logistics of booking hotel rooms and making other arrangements make it extremely difficult to take that route. But is it really that overwhelming a scenario? If the NL wins for the third straight time tonight, MLB will have 10-12 potential World Series sites under consideration. Add the AL to the mix, and the list expands to 18-20. Some people aren't convinced that the "logistical" obstacles are too big to overcome.
In the meantime, don't look for the dynamic to change. Tuesday in Kansas City, a player with no prayer of appearing in the World Series could have a profound influence on what happens to 50 players who will. It hardly seems fair. But MLB seems perfectly willing to live with that trade-off.
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