Last week Major League Baseball opened voting for the Mid Season Classic of baseball, the All·Star game, hosted this year by the Arizona Diamondbacks. I’ve been thinking a lot about the All·Star game, and two recent articles on mlb.com incited me to actually write my feelings out.
MLB columnist Anthony Castrovince writes that fans should be allowed to cast votes for the pitching staff of each team, while columnist Alden Gonzalez makes a case for keeping balloting as it currently exists. Read both articles, they are good ballpark food for thought.
My first thoughts are about who actually plays in the All·Star game, and how they are chosen. There are 34 roster spots available on each All·Star team, filled with pitchers and position players, usually around 10 of the former and 24 of the latter. Currently, each fan can vote 25 times for a list of 10 players for each team, nine position players and one designated hitter. This reflects the most recent change in the All·Star game which allows for a DH regardless of the league affiliation of the hosting team. The second most recent change to the All·Star game is that the winner of the game secures home field advantage for the World Series, either the National or the American League.
After fan voting is complete, the players/managers/coaches themselves vote for the pitching staff and second string position players. Lastly, the manager of each All·Star team selects about six players or enough to reach a final tally of 33. The 34th member of the All·Star team is a final fan ballot which selects from 5 players from each league selected by the All·Star team manager. Last minute substitutions due to injury, or in the case of pitchers, recent starts, is decided by the Commissioner’s office and the All·Star managers. Obviously this is a lengthy and complicated process.
Personally, I think that each fan should have the ability to vote once for 17 players. This would include 3 starting pitchers, 3 relief pitchers, 1 closing pitcher, 3 outfielders, 4 infielders, 1 catcher, 1 designated hitter, and 1 other player from a position of their choice. The remaining 16 players could then be voted for by the players, coaches, and managers, and the 34th player could be a final fan vote. Allowing fans multiple votes only exacerbates the annual problem of ballot stuffing, in which large market teams such as New York and Philadelphia can overwhelm the balloting, creating an extreme margin of votes. In every voting political system (that I know of) that is comprised of general elections, each voter can only vote once. I don’t see why this isn’t applicable to baseball. Fan involvement in the All·Star selection process is important, but right now I think the fans have a little too much power, and not enough available selections.
Beyond player selection, I have other concerns with the current format of the All·Star game: I remain ambivalent about the outcome of the All·Star game deciding home field advantage for the World Series. While it is nice to actually have the All·Star game mean something, at the same time, I don’t think the All·Star game is supposed to mean anything. As far as I know, the Pro Bowl (football’s All·Star game) is widely ignored by the football fan community. I watched the game last year, and the stadium in Hawaii was only half full. This is partly because the game is the week before the Super Bowl, and so none of the players from the teams in the Super Bowl participate, and partly because the game means nothing. Also, football players are so afraid of getting hurt that many refuse to play, and while this is an understandable reason to decline, fans want to see their favorite players play. I can’t say much about other sports’ All·Star games, but my general impression is that the fan reception is not much better.
However, baseball usually enjoys a large and positive fan reception to their All·Star game, mostly because 90% of the voted upon players actually play (unless they are injured, or as a pitcher, have recently pitched). I have never seen an All·Star stadium not full to capacity (and sometimes beyond). Also, the All·Star game is played in the middle of the season and in the middle of the summer. It isn’t buried in the dead of winter, after all is said and done. This breeds fan interest. It is played in the heyday of winning streaks, hitting streaks, and when most of the players and teams have hit whatever groove they are going to hit. Conversely, if a team or certain players aren’t playing well, it is also a time to step back, breath deep, and put the past few months behind them and remember when baseball was fun.
Ultimately, the All·Star game is a showcase of all the great players, both favorite and deserving (based on performance). It is every player a baseball fan wants to see in one place at one time (with some exceptions due to unequal balloting and the like). The bottom line is that there are many built in reasons to see the All·Star game without the home field advantage for the World Series being decided by the outcome. Home field advantage should be decided purely by the win-loss records of the teams involved, exactly like it is for each round of the playoffs prior to the World Series.
Moving on to another aspect of the game, I think what makes a baseball game boring for most people is the endless dance of pitching and hitting in which the pitcher takes forever to select a pitch, and the batter does everything to work the count for the best pitch to hit. The pitcher steps off the rubber, stares in at the catcher, steps off again, and then finally is ready to pitch. The batter steps out of the batter’s box, adjusts his helmet, his gloves, steps in, wiggles his bat, steps out, ad nauseam. This is actually what pitchers and batters are supposed to do to win games.
But those that watch the All·Star game want to see action and movement. Making the game count means that the players will revert to their tactics for winning baseball games. Making the the game an exhibition frees the players up to play the game for fun: by throw flaming fastballs and sweeping curve balls, by swinging at the first pitch and swinging for the fences, by making outrageous leaps and dives in the field. It would make the game dynamic, quick, and full of towering fly balls, screaming liners, and all the things that make baseball enjoyable to the wider audience of folks who like a day at the ballpark, and not just to those who wallow in the minutiae of the game, laboring over a scorecard and each pitch.
Generally speaking, getting people to watch and enjoy any sport is wrapped up in getting people to enjoy the game and helping them feel like they are a part of the game. Football does this well by televising the game with all sorts of cameras that put the viewer into the action, by commentators that know the game well and can make each play selection understandable to the viewer, and by a game that is predicated on multiple instances of quick action in which something is accomplished on each play. Baseball does this better at the ballpark than on TV, but it can be helped by altering the way the game is played, and the All·Star game is the perfect opportunity to shift the focus from winning to playing, and thus upping the energy while making it less vital to go all out for the sake of a win, while at the same time letting fans have a say in who makes the team so that they are excited to see their ballot choices take the field.
I think that if the player selection process was streamlined and expanded for the fans, while at the same time making the All·Star game more of an exhibition than a must-win game, it will remain fair for the leagues, and exciting for the spectators.
Either way, my votes are in for 2011, and I can’t wait for the Midsummer Classic from Arizona!