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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Bob Lutz: All-Star Game carries undue burden


This Game Counts.

Yes, yes it does. Baseball’s All-Star game counts, all right. Which is why there are 34-man rosters, and why every team in Major League Baseball, no matter how atrocious, gets a representative.

It’s why there are countless pitching changes and pinch-hitters. It’s why by the end of the All-Star Game, most if not all of those who started the game have showered, dressed and made dinner reservations. It’s why, even if the game is close, it’s tough to stay locked in during the late innings.

Yet this will be the 10th game in which the winning league gets the big prize of home-field advantage for the World Series, which really does count. It’s the World Series, yet it has been trivialized by MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who in his haste to avoid an embarrassing All-Star game tie, such as happened in 2002, decided it was best to give the game some undeniable meaning.

Selig’s overreaction is the equivalent of killing an ant with an uzi. Television ratings for the Midsummer Classic haven’t spiked because of what is now on the line. And as much as home-field advantage for the World Series means – six of the past nine world champions had home-field advantage thanks to the All-Star game outcome – nobody seems to be all that concerned.

The Texas Rangers have dropped the last two World Series in part, presumably, because of the lack of home-field advantage. If the National League had not won last year’s All-Star game, played in Phoenix, would the St. Louis Cardinals have beaten the Rangers in seven games, the last two of which were played in Busch Stadium?

So the impact of Selig’s decision cannot be denied. It can, however, be scrutinized.

The dugouts at Kauffman Stadium will be barely big enough to handle all of the players, coaches and support personnel Tuesday night. Managers Tony La Russa (NL) and Ron Washington (AL) will get as many of those players in the game as they can, remembering that there are only nine innings.

A pitcher who blows away a lineup in an inning will likely not pitch the next because there are so many pitchers waiting to get in. And if an All-Star worthy starting pitcher makes a start today, that pitcher understandably won’t be used in Tuesday night’s game.

Even with such big rosters, there are debates about which players were left off. The prestige of making an All-Star roster is still high and feelings can be hurt by being left off.

But has the intensity of the game itself really changed because of Selig’s decision?

I contend that it hasn’t. Interleague play, another Selig invention, and free agency, which happened before his time, have taken some luster off the All-Star game because so many players move from city to city and league to league nowadays. And interleague play has weakened the allure of seeing players from a different league for fans.

Still, baseball’s All-Star game will always be better than its counterparts in the NFL, NBA and NHL. Those are glorified exhibition games in which defense is an afterthought. It would be laughable if any kind of postseason advantage was derived from those games.

It’s laughable, to some degree, in baseball. Yet we have been laughing for 10 years.

This is such a bad rule, but it’s one Selig has mandated with an iron fist. When both the American and National League ran out of pitchers in 2002 and the game had to be called after an 11-inning tie, camera shots of Selig painted his embarrassment. And it was embarrassing. No All-Star game should end in a tie.

Managers, though, have always felt pressured to get all of the All-Stars into the game. Unlike during the regular season, when they have to be judicious and patient with a 25-man roster, managers are free to wheel and deal with all of the extra players they get to play with.

There are mixed messages when Selig insists that the All-Star game counts, yet the best of the best – and the players voted as starters by the fans are usually the best of the best – have long been out of the game in favor of reserves.

The All-Star game did just fine for 72 years before Selig’s interference. Baseball fans have always taken the game for what it is, and not demanded that it become anything more.

It’s an exhibition game, albeit a fun exhibition game. We shouldn’t take it too seriously. And in many ways, Selig doesn’t. If he did, he wouldn’t allow La Russa, who retired after the Cardinals’ 2011 world championship, to return to the dugout to manage a game that the commissioner has deemed to be one of the most important games of the season.

La Russa’s managerial acumen cannot be questioned; he’s one of the greatest of all-time. But he’s not an active manager and for him to be allowed to manage the National League in the All-Star game, as clever as it might be, does not support Selig’s edict that “This Game Counts.”

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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