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The Winds of Change

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There are some obvious flaws with the Mid-Summer Classic for America's Favorite Pasttime.

We can all list at least one thing we're not happy with concerning the All Star game.  Snubs, what the game means, what we should be voting on, issues of team representation, etc.  Which one looms largest to you?

Does "Fan Voting" really work?

Baseball provides you, like no other sport, a way to evaluate and appreciate players through statistics and numbers.  Win shares, VORP, WARP, OPS, K/BB...it never ends.  Whether you buy into it or not, these crystal balls of player performance are at everyone's fingertips, from Billy Beane to Billy-Joe Bob in his cardboard box to you and me.  The problem is that in spite of all these tools, fans (and non-fans) don't vote based on numbers.  They vote based on things like reputation, name recognition and who their favorite player is.

As wrong as you can argue it is, I'm not sure baseball has it written anywhere that says you must vote for the most statistically superior player.  If this is how you vote, which stat tells the whole story?  Strikeouts?  Home runs?  Value Over Replacement Player?  Runs Produced?

No matter which side of the line you're on, no matter what you're basing your vote on, each year there are players making the squad who have no reason to be there.  With the game in Pittsburgh this year there will be no designated hitters.  How does David Ortiz make the squad as a first baseman when he's played 7 games there all year?  How does Mark Loretta start at second base when his admittedly decent season is still quite underwhelming, and when players like Ron Belliard, Tadahido Iguchi, Brian Roberts and even Ty Wigginton are having arguably better seasons while sitting at home for three days?

Alex Rodriguez has gone to 10 All Star games including this season's, and he's only 30 years old.  He hasn't deserved to go every one of those years.  There are years when, yes, even the immortal Derek Jeter didn't deserve to go.  What happens is that players who don't deserve to get in, get in either on merits of their name or on the backs of superior media markets with grossly more fans than in other regions of the country.  It's not fair, and it makes no sense, but in an effort to build interest in their All Star game and build rapport with an audience turned off by greedy owners and greedy players, baseball wanted to get the fans involved.  By giving the fans a chance to vote, they were giving them the chance to vote in who THEY wanted to see play the Mid-Summer Classic.  Hypothetically, this would build viewership.  Realistically, it gives a couple of undeserving players a career highlight that could have gone to a better candidate.

I'm not chalking these mistakes up to incompetence, because the voters are not incompetent.  They're picking players with a purpose, whether you or I would agree with that purpose or not.  What I do chalk these mistakes up to is ignorance.  Fan voting is baseball's version of ethno-centric bias.  Of course the people of New York want to see as many Yankees on the All Star roster as possible.  It's easier for them to make it happen, because, well, there's almost 9 million of them just in New York City.  There aren't that many people in the state of Minnesota (short of 5 million according to the 2000 census).  But voting to see your team make up the All Star roster doesn't make you informed, and it's not why the game exists.

There are a number of ways to change this.  Eliminating fan voting, while an option, isn't a viable choice.  What the fans vote on, this is the ticket.  We'll discuss this later.

We want to vote for the best player.  What exactly are we voting on?

On July 7 of last year, Joe Randa was hitting .302/.374/.505 with 12 homers and 45 RBI.  Not only was there talk at TwinsTerritory of a desire to acquire Randa, there was discussion that he should be making the All Star game.  Randa had been having a hot first half, and while his straight hitting numbers were higher than you'd expect, it was his power numbers that people were falling over themselves about.  When Scott Rolen was voted in as a starter even though he'd been injured, I said Joe Randa deserved the spot more than he did.  I believed an injured player doesn't deserve to be on a roster in spite of past glories, and asked the question of exactly what we needed to be basing our votes on.

There's a great deal of sentimentality in baseball.  In Cal Ripken Jr.'s last season, he may not have deserved it, but he made the All Star game.  It was less about what he could do and more about what he'd done for the game.  It was a gesture of respect.  It did, however, likely leave off another player who probably deserved a shot.

What do you base your voting on?  Are you voting for the best player so far that season, or are you voting for the player who's been the best at that position over the last few seasons?  Joe Randa or Scott Rolen?  To me, neither one was a good choice.  Rosters of All Star games past seem to say they are comprised of players with history as opposed to players with a hot 3 months.  Ivan Rodriguez is a perfect example of this in 2006.  He's having a fine season, but he shouldn't be starting in front of Joe Mauer.

In the end this one is completely subjective, and a judgement call on the part of the voter.  I could probably go either way depending on the player and the situation.  I'd choose Francisco Liriano over Mark Buehrle or Justin Verlander over Kenny Rogers, but I would still pick Ivan Rodriguez over Ramon Hernandez.

The All Star game is an exhibition game, right?

So exactly why does it dictate who gets "home field" advantage in the World Series?  Oh, I see, so that the game means something.  So why is it still an exhibition?  Oh, I see, because it doesn't count.  Wait...what?

I like the idea of the game meaning something, because anything that's worth doing needs to mean something.  The problem with this is that guys like to compete, managers like to win, and it's hard to find the happy medium between all-out play and "exhibition" play.  There's a contradiction in the terms of the game and it's difficult to pick a side, even as a fan.

Those moments between the win and the loss, the take-out slide and getting out of the way, the difference between diving for that ball in foul territory and letting it drop...there are risks involved if you're going to run over the catcher on a play at the plate.  In that moment, the player wants to WIN.  The chances are always slim, but what happens when a guy gets hurt during an exhibition game?  This is the question, and the line that gets straddled every year that the game counts...or doesn't.

What exactly is the point of having an All Star game in the middle of the year?

I have NO idea.  It makes a nice "break" in the middle of the season; it allows us to stop paying such close attention to each day's results just long enough to be excited for regular play to begin again; it's a national pasttime that goes hand-in-hand with the week of July 4.  But, honestly, it just complicates things.  Moving the All Star game to the end of the season would help clear up some issues.

First, it makes it easier to decide who to vote for.  Looking at an entire season's worth of numbers makes it easier to differentiate between voting for history and voting for the year.  Had Randa hit .302/.374/.505 all year with 24 homers and 90 RBI I'd be much more likely to conceed him a spot on the roster; but it becomes much clearer that he was simply hot for a short while when his final numbers were .276/.335/.452 with 17 homers and 68 RBI.

Second, it could put the "exhibition" back into the game.  Give home field advantage in the World Series to the team with the best record, like should have been done in the first place.  Now, there's no confusion.  Not only is the game comprised of the best players over the course of the entire season, but they know why they're there.  It's not to "play to win" in some instances and "it doesn't count" in other moments.  The game would have one identity.

Moving the game to the end of the season eliminates the chance of voting for just another "hot" player, and it makes clearer the issue of "year" versus "recent history".  It gives the game a definite identity.  And, like football, the All Star game would become an end of the year celebration.

So...who "deserves" a spot?

As Minnesotans, most of us weren't bothered when Ron Coomer "represented" the Twins.  It didn't really bother us to see one of our own.  I promise you it bothered fans from another city with a player sitting at home who deserved the recognition more than Coomer.  Honestly I can't say with certainty why each team has to have a player.  Is it to keep viewship of the game up in those regions during the break?  Is it to stop the teams from feeling bad for sucking?  I don't know, you tell me.

This year, like every year, there are players on the roster just because they have to be.  Mark Redman, Grady Sizemore, Miguel Tejada, Scott Kazmir and Barry Zito are the single representatives from their teams (non-starters only).  Kazmir is having a good year, as are Tejada and Sizemore.  Zito is doing alright, but there were better choices for the slot.  Mark Redman, making the team simply because somebody had to, is laughable.  Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Francisco Liriano, Justin Verlander even Jeremy Bonderman, all these guys have better reasons to be on the All Star roster than does Redman.  Some of them could even take shots at Zito.  While Sizemore deserves to be on the team, Travis Hafner deserves it more.  Where do you draw the lines?

Every year there are any number of players who "deserve" to be on the team.  Some of them make it, some of them don't, some of them make it even though there were better choices out there.  Some might say Joe Contreras doesn't deserve his spot...but I won't.  Contreras is 9-0 with a 3.31 ERA in 103 innings, with 1.16 WHIP and a .636 opponent OPS.  He hasn't lost in his last 23 starts.  There are better choices out there, but this guy deserves to be on the team.

The reason that choices like Contreras make such a big deal is because of guys like Redman.  Spots on All Star rosters can always be made for guys who deserve to be there.  It wouldn't be as big of a deal for debatable choices, like Contreras, to make the team if players like Redman, who doesn't deserve it, aren't required to go.  This is what needs to be fixed.  There's no practical use in representing every team, especially in today's All Star game and what it's supposed to "mean".  Nobody wants Redman facing Pujols with two on when the game is tied at 1 in the sixth.

I want to see the pitchers pitch and the hitters hit...why does the pitcher have to hit in the All Star game?

This one is for the sages of baseball.  With the rate that players are being swapped in and out during the game, and with how deep the rosters are, there's no argument for "it adds strategy to the game".  It's pointless, yes, even in National League parks.  If you want David Ortiz to play in the game, fine, he should play.  But not as a first baseman.  He's a designated hitter, and he shouldn't be taking spots away from first baseman just because the game is being played in a National League park.

There's no more magic in watching AL players face off against NL players; it happens every year, many times a year.  Just as this tradition has gone out the window, so should the tradition of playing by the league rules for the designated hitter during the Mid-Summer Classic.  If you want, abolish the designated hitter all together, I don't care.  Just be consistent in a way that makes sense.  Nobody wants to watch a pitcher hit, not in an All Star game when players like Ortiz could be hitting.  Also, nobody wants to have to watch Ortiz play first base.  It's just not right.

Conclusions

Where do you begin?  There are a number of issues to be addressed.  First, baseball needs to decide what it wants the All Star game to mean:  meaningful game or exhibition.  Then, they need to decide if it's still practical for the game to be played in July.  If the game means something, then you can still make a case that it could still be played in the middle of the year.  If it doesn't, it needs to be moved.

Second, while you can't eliminate fan voting all together, something needs to be done to eliminate whatever ignorance you can.  Pick three consensus players from each position and have the public vote between those three.  Instead of getting players like Loretta at second base you could have Lopez, Belliard or Iguchi.

Third, each team does NOT need to be represented.  If Buddy Bell is going to feel bad none of his players were picked, then he needs to go to his GM and ask him to stop signing crappy free agents and to bring in coaches who can draft and develop decent prospects.  While Mark Redman won't say he doesn't belong, he knows there were better choices out there.

Bad decisions are forcing fans to choose between Hafner, Liriano, Pierzynski, Hernandez and Verlander.  All of these guys deserve to be on the squad; Hafner and Liriano more than the rest.  We shouldn't be making this decision; if we are, it should be because the roster is already full of deserving players, not because it's filled out with "must-haves" and recognizable names.

I still get a kick out of watching the All Star game.  Most of them are the game's greats, and it inspires me to see them all play on the same field.  Still, there are a number of decisions that need to be made, and every year things stay the same the more fans will become disenchanted.