When I look at what's happening in Major League Baseball in 2013, I can't help but wonder:
What if the All-Star Game was a big, extravagant and totally lighthearted show for the fans and only that? My, the fun that could be had...
In theory, "fun for the fans" is precisely what the Midsummer Classic is all about. The idea is to collect baseball's mightiest heroes, put them all out on the same field and let good times ensue. How could such a thing fail to be fun?
Easy: By being more complicated than that. Complicated to a fault, to put it more directly.
Having fun hasn't been the sole purpose of the game for a decade now. Ever since the decision was made to have the All-Star Game decide home-field advantage in the World Series, there's been an edge of seriousness to it that has made the whole thing, well, weird.
Baseball wants the All-Star Game to be more than just an exhibition, but there's what baseball wants and then there's the reality. That's that the All-Star Game is caught in between being an exhibition and a meaningful game. It can't decide which one it wants to be, and there's certainly no way it can be the latter under the current rules.
It all starts with the roster selection process, which is a mess. When you mix fan voting with player voting and the hand-pickings of managers who are oftentimes compelled to be loyal, you're not going to get the American League's best versus the National League's best.
The teams are flawed every year. And while they're admittedly not horrible enough to make one put dents in one's desk with one's head, the teams are flawed again in 2013.
I'm actually with Scott Miller of CBSSports.com in thinking that the fans did a pretty good job with the voting this year, but a couple players still got in on popularity more than numbers. Bryce Harper is the most notable example, and guys like Adam Jones and Brandon Phillips got in on popularity as well.
The players also generally did a good job, but Torii Hunter was a clear popularity pick. And while neither AL manager Jim Leyland nor NL manager Bruce Bochy really went crazy loading up the rosters with Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants players, Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com says it was Leyland's decision to tab Justin Verlander. His spot should have gone to Derek Holland or James Shields.
Elsewhere, it's ridiculous that Josh Donaldson, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner didn't make the American League squad. It's equally ridiculous that Ian Desmond, Shin-Soo Choo and Stephen Strasburg didn't make the National League squad. You can make solid arguments for other players as well.
If MLB is ever going to fully embrace the idea of making the All-Star Game the American League's best against the National League's best in an actual meaningful game, it needs to have a system that would ignore popularity in favor of production.The best way to do that would be to put the selection process in the hands of front office people and scouts, otherwise known as people who get paid to analyze players.
However, the All-Star overhaul process would have to go further than that.
If MLB wants the All-Star Game to be a legit baseball game, it would have to put an end to the constant lineup and pitching changes. Rather than getting everyone in the game, the emphasis would have to be on making the right moves to win the game. Even if it meant sticking with the same nine guys for all nine innings.
If MLB were to implement these changes, it would have a fair shot at turning the All-Star Game into the ultra-competitive affair that it so desires. The league would be happy.
But the fans? Maybe not as much.
If I were to go around and conduct a poll, I imagine the majority of fans would say that they'd love to watch a competitive All-Star Game year after year.
But at the same time, baseball fans are a tribal breed. They like their teams and their players. When the All-Star Game comes around, they root for players from their teams to get in the game and to perform well once they're in there.
And therein lie a couple problems with the overhaul ideas.
If MLB were to put the roster selection in the hands of nameless and faceless executives, the league would be risking alienating fans by snubbing the top regional and national fan-favorites.
Likewise, if MLB were to demand that managers manage the games according to the situations, it would be risking alienating fans by keeping the fan favorites that do make the rosters off the field in the end.
To these ends, making the All-Star Game the competitive spectacle MLB wants it to be wouldn't necessarily be making it the fan-friendly spectacle that it needs to be.
That's the rub, as I'm guessing that the league would much rather have crowd-pleasing All-Star Games than competitive All-Star Games. The league has to pay the rent, after all.
So rather than fully embrace the faux seriousness of the All-Star Game, why not fully embrace the opposite end of the spectrum? Make it the ultimate fan-friendly game, with all the fan-favorites, matchups and pairings fans want to see, to boot.
No, odds are there wouldn't be competitive games year after year if the All-Star Game were to go full-fun. But that's OK, as it doesn't take a competitive game to create memorable All-Star moments.
Take, for example, what could happen in the 2013 All-Star Game at Midsummer Classic if putting on a show for the fans was the one and only priority.
There would be no debate whatsoever about Matt Harvey starting the game for the National League. Clayton Kershaw is very, very (and for good measure, very) good and has long since earned the right to start the Midsummer Classic, but Harvey is both the hometown option and the flavor of the month/year.
In essence, starting Harvey in the All-Star Game would be akin to Pedro Martinez starting in the 1999 All-Star Game. The rest of the game was OK, but Pedro's performance alone is what people remember about that particular Midsummer Classic.
But why stop the New York love at Harvey? If Leyland wanted to give the fans something to remember, he'd send Mariano Rivera out to the mound to oppose Harvey.
Starting would ensure that Rivera's final All-Star appearance wouldn't be wasted in mop-up duty and, by extension, that his final All-Star appearance would consist of the right amount of memorability for his heretofore awesome farewell tour.
In essence, Mo starting in the All-Star Game would be a way for baseball to have it's next Cal Ripken Jr. moment.
That's not the only way Leyland could give the fans a sight to remember. He could also have some fun by sending Manny Machado out to play shortstop alongside Miguel Cabrera, thus putting Machado at his natural position and giving the fans a glimpse of the American League's most famous infielder and best young infielder playing side-by-side.
Bochy could have some side-by-side fun of his own. Imagine an early switch that placed Harper and Yasiel Puig—who, in a world where the All-Star Game only cared about pleasing the fans, would be an All-Star without question—next to each other in the outfield and in the lineup. In that case, there'd be two high-energy guys with a combined age of 42 (i.e. younger than Rivera) joined at the hip.
The possibilities go on. With so many star players at their disposal and no pressure to actually win the game, I trust that Leyland and Bochy would be able to conjure their own ideas to give fans a few things to remember the 2013 All-Star Game by.
And in case the thought crossed your mind, I doubt the players would mind the game becoming more of a sideshow. If Chipper Jones was speaking the truth last year, then the players already view the All-Star Game as a sideshow.
If you missed it, the Atlanta Braves legend told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick that the players still treat the All-Star Game as an exhibition for the same reasons I outlined above: it's not actually the AL's best against the NL's best, and the game is hardly managed like a game that counts.
If the players still feel that way after a decade of the All-Star Game "counting," then it's a safe bet that they're not going to be inspired to feel any differently until changes are made. The league could make those changes, or it could give up and accept the All-Star Game for what it's supposed to be.
Nothing sacred. Just fun.
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