MLB's All-Star Game Is for the Fans—at Least According to the Media

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MLB's All-Star Game Is for the Fans—at Least According to the Media
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The moment that Major League Baseball announces the starting rosters for its annual All-Star Game, sports fans across the United States (and maybe Ontario) begin dissecting the selections. 

The most common topic is one on who was not selected, which then leads to a discussion on who does not belong in the All-Star Game.

While the reserves usually ensure that most "deserving" players make it to the Midsummer Classic, snubs still exist. Snubs will always exist in any all-star contest simply because there are usually too many quality players to choose from. It is rare that a position is so shallow that people are selecting from a pool of mediocre players.

But what all of this discussion leads to is a simple question: Should fans be allowed to vote for the starters in an all-star contest?

Well, the topic itself has been approached by several writers on b/r, including Christopher Murphy's article on snubs, while Shady Botros wrote two articles—one examining the American League snubs and one examining the National League omissions

Dan Wade put together a column discussing how the debate over what the All-Star Game is about (fan favorites or performance) is moot, as most deserving players make it anyway.

It is almost overkill for me to put out another article on the selections, as there are many other articles that already exist on Bleacher Report (many with only a few reads). However, I am going to write one anyway, but hopefully take a different approach.

Any all-star contest exists for one reason, which is a combination of the two ideologies that Wade discusses. It serves as a stage for fans to see both their favorite players and the game's most talented players (some who are likely unknown to the casual fan).

But there is a priority in terms of all-star ideologies. Fans come first, and then the young talent receive their due respect. Major League Baseball even acknowledges this when, in a press release announcing the opening of fan voting, they write, "Fans can send their favorite players to St. Louis" (emphasis added).

Because fans come first, there will obviously be players on the starting roster who might not be statistically the best at their given position. Even though those fan omissions are often included via player vote, a trickle-down effect occurs that is not unlike a 6-25 NCAA basketball team winning its conference tournament and "bursting" a bubble team. 

The selection of Josh Hamilton by the fans ultimately means that either Ian Kinsler or Adam Lind will not be on the final roster.

This is what leads to this debate over whether or not fans should choose the starting roster. Those selections have an effect everywhere else on the two rosters, especially with the requirement that all 30 teams send at least one representative.

But I would argue that fans are not necessarily the ones at fault here. Blame falls primarily on the media and its influence on what we see (and what we do not see).

Look at this year's two starting rosters. Of the 18 players, six play in cities that, relatively speaking, are small television markets—Joe Mauer (Minneapolis, 14th); Evan Longoria (Tampa-St. Petersburg, 19th); Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle, 13th); Ryan Braun (Milwaukee, 29th); and both Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols (St. Louis, 20th). Molina and Pujols are exceptions, since St. Louis is hosting the event.

Of the remaining 12 players, four are from New York City, the largest television market in the United States. The cities of Boston and Philadelphia, ninth and fifth respectively, each have two players on the starting roster.

However, television markets do not explain everything. Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco/Oakland have no starters on either roster—although, to be fair, Manny Ramirez's suspension is the probable reason why Los Angeles does not have a starter.

Media coverage plays a large part in determining what teams and players we, as fans, see on a daily basis. ESPN acts as a gatekeeper and basically shows us what they believe we want to see.

In a 2000 article for the Journal of Sport & Social Issues, Michael Berube wrote the following:

One SportsCenter anchor opened a story by saying, "After a solid start at the beginning of the year, the Montreal Expos' season has rapidly headed south, to the point at which their games are relegated to this segment of the broadcast," that is at the show's ebb tide, well after all the "important" games in baseball...have been addressed.

In other words, highlight shows such as SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight dictate what we see, when we see it, and how much of it we are allowed to see. The chances today that the Nationals open the highlights on SportsCenter hinge on if some sort of anomaly occurs—a no-hitter, a brawl, a four-home run game, etc.

Therein lies a fundamental problem. Because stronger, more popular teams (Yankees and Red Sox) and big-name players (Manny, Pujols, Alex Rodriguez) are typically covered with greater detail, it may be difficult to track lesser-known players who are having a great season despite playing for a last place team.

In 2005, I tracked the highlights shown on SportsCenter over a 22-day period. What was observed was not only a geographic bias, but also that certain teams appeared far more than other teams. 

While it cannot be directly applied to this year's All-Star selections, I doubt little has changed since that time.

In terms of the "featured" game highlighted on the 11 PM Eastern SportsCenter (i.e., first baseball game highlighted), an American League East team was involved 78.6 percent of the time. 

A National League Central team was involved in 66.7 percent of those highlights. In terms of the first five games highlighted, what could be dubbed "important games," there is still bias towards the AL East (50 percent), as well as the NL East (53.7 percent).

Now, there is an obvious reason why teams in the east are highlighted more often than teams from the west. By the time the 11 PM edition of SportsCenter aired, most games in the east had concluded and therefore were able to be highlighted. So, let's look at the 1 AM Eastern edition of SportsCenter.

With the 1 AM edition, the distribution of highlights is spread more evenly among the geographic divisions. The AL East was still involved in the plurality of featured and important games, but more games involving the two West divisions are highlighted. The issue, however, is many people on the east do not see these highlights.

One final point with the divisional breakdown: In terms of important highlights on the 1 AM edition of SportsCenter, most divisions see an increase in coverage when one of their teams is playing a team from the East.

  • 56 percent of AL Central highlights were against AL East teams
  • 58 percent of AL West highlights were against AL East teams
  • 75 percent of NL Central highlights were against NL East teams
  • 56 percent of NL West highlights were against NL East teams

For the East divisions, the distribution was fairly even across all divisions.

As for teams during this time, only four teams had every game highlighted at some point in the program—the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, the Texas Rangers, and the Atlanta Braves. The Rangers were an anomaly at the time due to the Kenny Rogers-cameraman incident.

The Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners were the only teams to have less than 50 percent of their games highlighted. The Chicago White Sox, who had the best record at that time, were only highlighted 86.7 percent of the time, while the Oakland Athletics were highlighted 93.75 percent of the time despite having a losing record!

The reason the A's were highlighted more often than the White Sox had a lot to do with their opponents during this time frame.

Another interesting aspect is the SportsCenter reset, which recapped the day's top stories during the 1 AM edition. Of the 18 baseball games that were deemed to be a top story worth resetting, 16 involved teams from the east, and 11 involved either the Red Sox or the Yankees.

So, does the media, namely ESPN, play a role in who makes an all-star roster? The answer is partially.

In 2005, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Jason Bay had to make it in as a reserve despite strong numbers, while the Cincinnati Reds' Felipe Lopez did not even make the team. Both the Pirates and Reds received sporadic highlights on SportsCenter, 50 percent and 56.25 percent respectively.

Conversely, the Cardinals and the Houston Astros were highlighted roughly the same number of times. Despite this, Scott Rolen was selected as a starter from the Cards, while the Astros' Morgan Ensberg was a last-minute replacement, ironically for the injured Rolen. Ensberg was having a far better season than Rolen.

So there is some sway that is held by ESPN, but it is obviously not the only factor. Nevertheless, to hammer home the point that ESPN does hold some influence over who makes the All-Star team, let's look at Jason Bay.

Here are Bay's pre-All-Star stats for the four of the last five seasons. I have randomized them for the hell of it.

  • Sample A: .284, 21 HRs, 66 RBI, 54 Rs, 56 BBs, 84 Ks, .927 OPS, 6 SBs
  • Sample B: .287, 19 HRs, 53 RBI, 64 Rs, 56 BBs, 77 Ks, .917 OPS, 6 SBs
  • Sample C: .265, 20 HRs, 71 RBI, 54 Rs, 51 BBs, 81 Ks, .915 OPS, 8 SBs
  • Sample D: .299, 16 HRs, 44 RBI, 59 Rs, 45 BBs, 79 Ks, .930 OPS, 5 SBs

Now, Bay has made an All-Star roster three times—twice as a starter and once as a reserve. Sample A, when he was with the Pirates in 2006, and Sample C, his current stats, are the two times he was selected as a starter.

Sample D, again with the Pirates but in 2005, was when he was selected as a reserve. Sample B is from 2008, prior to his trade to the Red Sox, when he did not make the roster at all.

While his stat line with the Red Sox this season is not terrible, it is not as solid as A and could be considered worse than B, when Bay did not make the roster at all. I do not recall many Pirate highlights on SportsCenter or seeing Pittsburgh on Sunday Night Baseball. What this seems to suggest is that ESPN does promote/limit specific teams and players, even if it is unintentional on their part.

The biggest hole in this argument is team popularity. While the Red Sox are a more popular team and would therefore have more of their players receive votes, it would also seem that the Pirates' smaller fanbase hindered Bay's rise to "stardom."

Tony Kornheiser stated it perfectly in 2006 on Pardon the Interruption, when he claimed, "They put other stuff on, and it doesn't rate like the Yanks and the Sox. You put the Yanks and Sox on—it's magic! It's magic!"

In closing, while most fans obviously have the capacity to think for themselves, and ESPN and Fox Saturday Baseball are going to show the more popular teams (or teams with winning records), there is still influence being exerted by those in control of what comes through our digital connections. Sometimes it is even a personal bias.

On July 21, 2005, ESPN ran a behind-the-scenes episode of SportsCenter. During an interview with a producer on the topic of "killed" highlights, the producer noted that the Boston Red Sox versus Chicago White Sox highlights ran long (two minutes and 40 seconds, to be exact). 

It was then that the producer, who is from the Northeast, admitted a Red Sox bias.

Why is that not surprising?

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