Since 1933, right around the dawn of summer, the baseball world has taken a short break from the rigors of the long season to celebrate the game and its best players in the MLB All Star Game.
Every July, hardcore fans of the game must endure an excruciating three-day lull in the action, relying on the Futures Game, Home Run Derby, and All Star Game to satiate our passionate hunger for the sport we love. Of course, I'm sure most of the players enjoy the couple days off to recuperate before embarking upon their run through the dog days of summer.
Just as we have grown accustomed to this forced recess from baseball, we have also come to expect the grousing that inevitably accompanies the announcement of the final All Star rosters. Every year, we witness egregious errors in the selection process; a specific team's fans stuffing the ballot boxes, sentimentality overriding common sense, even players getting voted in who aren't eligible to play.
It is not solely the fans who are to blame for this as some critics may suggest. Usually, fans displaying their homer tendencies make easy targets for complaints, as they often vote in players based simply on the uniform they wear, ignoring performance relative to other potentially more deserving players.
It is often assumed that players or coaches would make better decisions, thinking that their insider status allows them a clearer view of who might be a legitimate candidate to represent their respective league in the Midsummer Classic. Those that fault fans for All Star missteps often suggest that leaving the selection process up to those more intimately involved may help eliminate the notion that the All Star selection process is nothing more than a popularity contest.
Realistically though, players and managers are just as susceptible to falling for familiarity and hype as fans are. Yes, they are closely involved in the on field action, but due to the time consuming nature of the schedule, travel and game preparation they are often much more familiar with players that they face the most. The unbalanced schedule gives them the opportunity to see divisional foes approximately 19 times a year, with only a handful of games against teams from other divisions. Due to scheduling quirks, a team may not even face non-divisional opposition before the All Star break. Off the top of my head, I know that the Yankees and Royals have not yet faced each other during 2010. How prepared are players on those teams to vote on the 2010 All Star credentials of an as yet unseen American League foe?
This latest round of All Star selections, just like every other year, leaves us with debatable roster choices, perceived snubs and a steady stream of frustration over the entire process.
All of which lead me to wonder, what does it really mean to be selected as a Major League All Star?
Since there is no clearly defined definition or official guidance provided by the league about what to consider when making your All Star selections, people are forced to draw their own conclusions. Fans, players and managers basically watch whoever is off to a hot start, and go from there with who they know best.
The timing of the All Star Game is the basis for much of the debate. By holding the game near the symbolic midpoint of the 162 game schedule, in essence we are neglecting an entire half of the baseball season. In fact, some might argue that the All Star process basically disregards the most crucial segments of the season, the dog days of summer and the last gasp run through September.
Of course, we know that games won in April are just as critical as those won in September, but the late season drama and the relentless pennant stretch are where baseball heroes are born. Often, MVPs are crowned based upon how a player performs in the latter stages of the schedule, leading his team to the promised land of playoff baseball.
As the leaves are turning and the air begins to crisp, no one remembers who had a brilliant May or June. We remember those who persevere through the schedule's most gruelling stretch, shaking off the accumulated aches and pains of the season to strive for October.
If the baseball season's second half can be the proving grounds for Most Valuable Players, then why is it deemed irrelevant when considering which players are of All Star caliber?
The manner in which it currently constructed, a player can produce a scintillating first three months, be named an All Star, get injured in mid-July, and potentially not play another game for his team during that season. Of course, this scenario doesn't often occur, but it is certainly plausible. Is that all the honor is intended to represent? The best players of the first 88 games or so of each season?
Conversely, a player could have a first half deemed less than All Star worthy by those responsible for constructing the rosters, then have an utterly dominant second half, elevating his game when his team needs him most.
This scenario has occurred as recently as 2007 in the National League when Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies had a very good, if non-All Star worthy first half, then upped his game in the second half en route to an MVP award and a truly historical season. In fact, 2007 saw Rollins accomplish a feat that no one else in baseball history has yet been able to match. Although his OBP of .344 leaves much to be desired from the leadoff spot in Philly's order, Rollins was such a dynamic offensive force that he became the only player to ever collect at least 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases, while also amassing more than 200 hits. Rollins also led the NL in runs, and even drove in 94 more while doing the majority of his damage from the leadoff spot.
The American League witnessed this occurrence in 2006, when Minnesota's Justin Morneau was omitted from the AL All Star roster in favor of fellow first basemen David Ortiz, Paul Konerko and Jim Thome. Although he may have been All Star worthy with his 23 HR, 73 RBI and .939 OPS in the first half, he was unable to make the cut and instead was given a three-day vacation. He continued his hot hitting in the second half, leading the Twins to an AL Central title and winning a hotly contested MVP race ahead of the also stellar Derek Jeter. Morneau was voted the Most Valuable Player in the entire American League, but at All Star time, was not considered better than at least three first basemen... interesting to say the least.
Truthfully, we don't see this occur on a regular basis, and it must be noted that while the All Stars are selected by a combination of fans, players, and the All Star manager, MVP awards are the responsibility of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Without definite clarification as to what each of these honors are meant to specifically represent, we cannot reasonably expect these disparate factions to consistently reach similar conclusions. The cases of Rollins and Morneau do help to highlight one of the fundamental issues I have with the All Star Game in general.
Logistically speaking, to allow the All Star team to accurately represent the best players in each league every season, the game would have to be held at the conclusion of the playoffs, so that voters could take the complete season into account when casting their ballot. Of course, the Midsummer Classic is a long standing tradition and the symbolic midpoint of the season offers a perfect respite from the grind of the longest schedule in sports.
Ultimately, I would like to hear some word from the league itself, possibly providing a clearer definition of what the All Star designation is intended to represent. Without any such guidance, the process shall likely remain a free for all, leaving each party to interpret it as they see fit. Are we voting simply for first half All Stars? May we consider players who had All Star worthy second halves of the season prior?
Back when the All Star Game was a meaningless exhibition, offering a break from the daily schedule and a fun diversion for the fans, none of this truly mattered. Now that Major League Baseball has insisted upon saddling the game with significantly more meaning by giving home field advantage for the World Series to the winner, "This Time It Counts"—whether we think it should or not. Considering the additional significance bestowed by the commissioner's office, maybe one day we'll know exactly what all of this means. Until then, the popularity contest shall endure.