Start the season with the All-Star Gameby Paul Francis Sullivan
May 10, 2011
It is always a dangerous endeavor to alter baseball tradition, but moving the All-Star Game from the middle of the season to the beginning of the year makes a lot of sense. The game itself can be a wonderful spectacle and indeed many of the recent games have been exciting affairs. The American League had a thrilling ninth-inning comeback in 2006 Pittsburgh. The 15-inning 2008 marathon in Yankee Stadium was a classic. And last year’s National League comeback was terrific as well.
But the excitement around the game has faded, the voting process is faulty and the entire enterprise operates on assumptions that may have been true 80 years ago but need to evolve to the modern game.
Before people start talking about the tradition of the All-Star Game, remember it was originally meant to be a one time only affair. The World’s Fair of 1933 was being held in Chicago and Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward organized a game between the best American and best National League players to be held in Comiskey Park. The novelty was a huge hit—49,200 packed the park and many more listened to Pat Flanagan and Johnny O’Hara call the game on CBS Radio.
The rosters included a galaxy of stars and future Hall of Famers like Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Joe Cronin, Al Simmons, Lefty Grove, Bill Dickey, Jimmie Foxx, Tony Lazzeri, Earl Averill, Paul Waner, Pie Traynor, Gabby Hartnett, Carl Hubbell, Chuck Klein, Franke Frisch, Bill Terry and some fellow named Babe Ruth who homered.
American League and National League players never faced off unless it was the World Series, so the game allowed for those great hypothetical match-ups of stars confronting each other to come to life.
And of course the game provided a midway point to the season and gave some of the players a few days' respite. And for generations, with the reserve clause keeping many superstars entrenched with a single team their whole career, there was a true division and animosity between the two leagues.
However over the years, the cross pollination by free agency and interleague play, which creates a wonderful spark of excitement during the late spring-early summer days, makes the novelty stale. Want to see CC Sabathia stare down Albert Pujols? You mean like he did in the regular season a few years ago in Milwaukee?
And of course the 2002 All-Star Game tie fiasco led to home field advantage of the World Series being the prize for the midseason classic. I am actually a fan of that. It beat the old method which was simply to alternate American League and National League home field every other year. (Ever wonder why the A’s were the powerhouse in 1988 and the Dodgers were the limping underdogs but the Gibson Game 1 homer was in LA and not Oakland? Ever wonder why teams like the 1927 Yankees and 1984 Tigers opened the World Series on the road? Or the 1987 Twins had Domefield advantage in the ALCS and World Series despite having only 85 wins?) At least home field being determined by the All-Star game gives some sort of excuse for such disparities.
The game still has appeal and its merits. Besides the game itself, there's the showcase of talent and celebrating baseball’s past heroes. Who could forget Ted Williams’ grand entrance at Fenway in 1999? Or Willie Mays in 2007? Or Stan Musial in 2009?
And the introduction of the All-Star roster along the baselines is one my favorite moments of pageantry in all of sport.
There are reasons to play the All-Star Game, but it should open the season.
Start the season with a bang
How does the season begin now? A random night game on ESPN? This year it started on a Thursday. I didn’t even realize it was Opening Day until a day or two before. Some years the season began in Asia! The Red Sox began the 2008 season and their defense of the World Series title in Tokyo. Most Red Sox fans were sound asleep. How could a season begin with more than a whimper?
Instead start it with the All-Star Game. Have a celebration of baseball to begin the year. Have the season start with a spectacular show rather than an obscure game. Unveil all of the stars, some being seen wearing their new uniforms for the first time. And because no pitcher goes more than two innings anyway, there wouldn’t be a great danger of wearing out arms at the beginning of the year.
Learn something from football, which opens the season with a spectacular kickoff game. But unlike football, very few baseball games have national appeal. The All-Star Game is one such game. So why bury it in the middle of the season?
All-Star or best April?
Questions about the voting and the selection of All Stars can be solved by having the game at the start of the season.
The All-Star vote is going on now for the game in Arizona. What criteria are people using to vote in early May? Who had the best April? Who had the best 2010?
Should Jason Kubel be voted on as an elite player because he had a terrific April? Kubel very well might put up All-Star numbers for the whole year, or he could tail off.
Remember Phillies pitcher Tyler Green? He was a former first-round pick and phenom in waiting. He never panned out, pitching in four different seasons, posting a losing record and a career ERA north of 5.00. Yet he has the “All-Star” banner on his Baseball Reference page. Why? Because in the first half of 1995, he went 8-4 with a 2.81 ERA and looked a Rookie of the Year candidate. He crashed and burned, going 0-5 the rest of the season and saw his ERA balloon to 5.31.
Just last year the “Should Stephen Strasburg be an All Star” debate was a hot topic. The novelty of the young fireballer facing American League opponents for the very first time was intriguing. But his selection would have looked foolish in retrospect after his season ended after only 12 games.
And not only are players rewarded for good first halves, but other players are penalized for great second halves. Kirk Gibson was the 1988 National League MVP, but failed to be named to the 1988 All-Star Game, an honor given to Vance Law and Gerald Perry.
Roger Clemens was the 1987 Cy Young Award winner, but was home fishing during the All-Star Game while Pat Tabler, Harold Reynolds and Jay Howell took the trip to Oakland.
The All-Star opener should have several guaranteed selections. The MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player and Silver Slugger winners of the previous season should all get an automatic invite. I would argue the batting champ, home run champ, stolen base king and Rolaids Relief winners should be added as well.
The practice of each team being represented should continue. Of course there are some more-than-questionable obligatory All-Star selections over the years. (Was there ever a more ridiculous All Star than Mark Redman in 2006?) But remember this is how the season starts, and each team should be given the obligatory representative and hope for the season. (Even the Pirates.)
By starting the season with the All-Star Game, baseball creates a new avenue for offseason baseball discussion. After the automatic invitations, fans can vote for other spots on the roster between the end of the World Series and the start of spring training. Offseason baseball talk is good for the game and good for fans and could lead to a buildup of excitement for the All-Star Game.
The idea of All-Star votes being tallied from the punch cards at the ballpark is even more dated than the All-Star Game being at midseason. The votes can be tabulated online, with MLB.com experts giving pros and cons for each candidate and daily updates of which player has the most votes.
Of course this could open up baseball to the “Sanjaya factor” and unworthy players being voted in as a joke, but in the end how could anyone be less of an All Star than say Lance Carter a few years ago?
We need a break
Eliminating the All-Star Game would not necessarily mean ending the midseason respite for players. The midseason break could be possible with the Hall of Fame induction. Right now it happens while games are being played. Why not have it be the new midseason tradition? The game takes a break for a few days as the legends of baseball descend on that little town in New York where baseball was not invented.
Perhaps some current players would be able to participate in the Cooperstown ceremony as well. Perhaps they can stage a Home Run Derby with current stars and Hall of Famers at Doubleday Field.
Meanwhile the current players would have a little break and we could continue to celebrate baseball.
The All-Star Game was designed to give the sport a boost in the midst of the Great Depression. It perfectly worked for that era when baseball was king and the main media were radio and newspapers. Now it must adapt to the Internet, Twitter and a more popular NFL.
It’s time to adapt again. Start the season with a star-studded showcase. It’s worth a shot.
References and Resources
Baseball-reference.com, CNNSI.com, blog.mlive.com