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Baseball Must Find a Better Plan for the All-Star Game

This is a column that was partly posted last year on Baseball Digest Daily, and part on Talking Chop. I still feel strongly about many of the suggestions I make in the article and I wanted to post it once again. It has some good quotes from players and management which I gathered at a series before last year's All-Star game. I've updated the article a bit to bring it up to date. Enjoy.

Just about every player around baseball will tell you the same thing about the current All-Star format and the way it's tied to home field advantage in the World Series; they don't like it, not one bit. Some players, like John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves will tell you flat out, "it's dumb." And Smoltz is right; the current format for the All-Star game is doing baseball and its fans a disservice. We all saw the total superiority of the American League during inter-league play; we can only assume that since they've won nine out of the last ten All-Star games that their dominance will continue. And once again, the mighty American League will get home field advantage in the World Series.

In the time that they have been playing the All-Star game "for real" the winning AL club has not won more or less World Series (2 wins for each league), which is not to say that they would have accumulated more or fewer victories if they had not had home field advantage, but going into the series they none the less had an advantage, and year after year they may unfairly get that same advantage. So what else can be done?

For some players, there doesn't need to be anything done to the original format of the All-Star game. Jim Edmonds of the St. Louis Cardinals is thinking along those lines, and says that "they were doing fine back in the day. The only thing I had to say is that they made too big a deal about the tie game." The tie in 2002 which spawned this whole fiasco was only the second tie in the over seventy year history of the game. Edmonds' concerns about an extra inning game also come into play, "you got the best players from each team out there, the last thing you want is for your best player to get hurt, to drag the pitchers out there and make them throw more than they need to throw and make players play more than they need to play. It would be a shame if somebody got hurt, and wasn't able to perform for their team at the end of the year."

For a former player like Terry Pendleton the All-Star game is "too much ra-ra" to begin with. Pendleton, who is now on the player development side of the game as the batting coach for the Atlanta Braves, thinks the game is also an impediment that "keeps the guys away too long." He does admit that "it's great for the fans," adding, "I know the fans love it, and it's something great for baseball too." But he confesses, "I don't know how you can make it more exciting." He was also not shy about expressing his dislike of the current format saying, "I didn't ever think it was a good idea."

There were some suggestions offered up by players, coaches, and announcers as to what changes could be made. Braves announcer Skip Caray thinks that baseball should return the All-Star game to being just an exhibition game and "use the totals from inter-league play to determine home field advantage [for the World Series]." That may be a more balanced plan that would set home field advantage based on the overall strength of the leagues, but there are just too many other factors that can determine strength. The AL has the DH, and the NL does not. That automatically gives the American League the advantage in their stadiums over the span of five inter-league series.

A postseason plan such as that would not work for Braves coach Terry Pendleton. He thinks "the team with the best record [for the season] ought to be able to decide whether they want to start at home or on the road [in the World Series]. And if both of them have the same record, they ought to flip a coin to see who starts where."

John Smoltz has a more radical idea of what to do with the All-Star game. He thinks that baseball should have an All-Star game that is "America verses the world." He thinks that would generate the fan support that Major League Baseball thinks is lacking, but he also admits, "when you have the best All-Star game of any sport, I have a hard time believing that we have to create fan interest." He adds, "[if you want to create fan interest] then you do America verses the world." But Smoltz's feelings about the current format are clear, "it's dumb." "I'm sure I'll be getting a call from the commissioner on that one," Smoltz adds. Maybe that's why so many players I talked to were reluctant to express their true feelings about this current All-Star format.

Therein lies one of the problems with the current system; the commissioner's office didn't consult the players when they made their decision to have the All-Star game "count." Jim Edmonds lays out the disaffected feeling that many of the players have; "I'm just a player, I don't have anything to do with making the rules or any decisions like that. I live by them and just play the game. If that's the decision that's made, then that's what we've got to live with." The players know it's an exhibition game that is supposed to count for something, but they haven't approached it any differently than they did four years ago when it was still just an exhibition game.

So, what should be done? How can we change it so that the outcome of the All-Star game doesn't affect the biggest series of the year, the World Series? How do we change it and still keep that "fan interest" the commissioner's office and Fox Sports think they need?

My plan is to still make the game "mean" something, but not something that affects the real baseball season or the post-season. Instead of the All-Star game being played to determine which league will have home field advantage in the World Series, the game should be played to determine which league will host the All-Star game the following year. Make the exhibition game affect the next exhibition game, and that's it. The game is being played this year in San Francisco, why not choose two cities, one from the AL and one from the NL, and whichever team wins this year's All-Star game, the American or National league, then that league's chosen city will host the next All-Star contest. The game would have no impact on who would get home field advantage in the World Series; it would only impact itself.

This format would generate tremendous excitement in the cities that were vying for next year's game. The Mayors of each city could get involved, there could be all sorts of promotional tie-ins with the cities that would make the sponsors happy, and the momentum of winning the game would carry over into that city for the following year's All-Star game. So, the game would still be an exhibition, but there would also be meaning that at least fans of two cities could really get into. And like John Smoltz said, "[we] have the best All-Star game of any sport; I have a hard time believing that we have to create fan interest."

Let's go one step further and take some of the player's suggestions for the All-Star game and the World Series and add them to my plan. John Smoltz's suggestion of America verses the World was a good one, so let's take that suggestion for the homerun derby. This was something baseball came close to doing in last year's derby when they chose a player representing one of eight different countries to participate in the derby. America verses the World could also have some sort of tie in with the World Baseball Classic. Perhaps the top homerun hitters from the Classic could be the participants verses the top "American" homerun hitters.

Let's also take some of the suggestions about determining home field advantage for the World Series, because the "every other year method" they used before the current system was just as arbitrary as the current system; although, it was at least balanced. Let's use Terry Pendleton's suggestion of giving home field advantage for the World Series to the team with the best regular season record of the two teams that make it. If both of the teams had the same regular season record, then the tiebreaker would go to whichever league had the best inter-league record, Skip Caray's idea. If those records were the same, then and only then would home field go to the league who won the All-Star game. And if that was a tie, then we'd flip a damn coin.

The baseball All-Star game will always be dependent on the allure of its super-stars to generate true fan interest. The marketing gurus around baseball and the network that televises the game want to believe that their All-Stars alone can't draw a television audience to the game, but perhaps that's because they do the worst job of any of the three major sports of promoting their players. Of course, that's an article for another day.

For now, baseball should scrap its current All-Star reward of home field advantage in the World Series, and get the game back to what it was always intended to be - an exhibition of the best players throughout baseball. John Kruk verses Randy Johnson in '93, Fred McGriff's game tying homerun and Tony Gwynn's game winning hit in '94, Cal Ripken's farewell homerun in '01, and all the other natural moments from the All-Star game that can't be scripted; those are the things that draw fan interest, and those are the things that keep them watching year after year.

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