What is an All-Star?   (05/01/01)

I just watched a replay of the home run hitting contest from the 1999 All-Star game.  For those of you who saw it, I really don't need to say anything more.  You already have goose bumps.  But for those of you who either didn't see it or who's memory is a bit fuzzy, I'll refresh your memory: Mark McGwire.

In the first round of this event, McGwire hit 13 home runs off Padre batting practice pitcher Tim Flannery.  None of them were cheapies.  Ball after ball soaring over Fenway's famous Green Monster.  One of them hit the top of the left field light tower, which stands more than 100'  tall.  The shortest of them was conservatively estimated at around 400 feet.  The longest of them measured around 480', but I find it hard to believe that a ball that hit the roof of a building across Landsdowne Street would have only traveled 480' from home plate.  Perhaps the ball did only travel that distance.  However, had the three story building that it hit not been there, the distance would have been more than 500'.  To give you an idea of exactly how far that is, the average ballpark power alley is around 375'-380'.  If you put two ballparks back to back, this ball traveled far enough to leave the first ballpark and still have enough distance to get into the outfield over the shortstop of the next.  Talk about star power.

There's no question that McGwire is one of the best players ever.  Every summer great players like him get together for one game, a mid-summer classic called the All-Star Game.  Players as obviously great as McGwire are pretty rare.  So after you finish picking the 8 to 10 eventual Hall of Famers like McGwire for each team, how should the other 15 spots be filled?

Who, besides the truly great players at the peak of their game, are the All Stars?  Are they the guys having great seasons?  How about the stars of a few years ago who's light may be fading fading?  Or is it even a matter of being a quality player?  Is this game more about who the fans want to see, the fan favorites?  And who should decide?

As it stands, the fans vote for the 16 or 17 starting position players, depending on whether the game is played at an AL park (where a DH is used) or an NL park.  The World Series managers from the previous year choose the pitchers and fill out the bench.  Invariably, there are some good, possibly great players left off the rosters, either due to the number of quality players at the position (like shortstop in the AL), or a roster restriction.  Every major league team must have at least one All-Star representative and both managers want a team they can use during the game, i.e, he doesn't want a bench with nothing but first basemen and/or outfielders.  That would limit his pinch hitting options.  But that's another story.  I mean, normally you'd pinch hit for your shortstop late in a close game, but who are you gonna use to pinch hit for ARod?  Tino Martinez?  I don't think so.

Then there are the guys who are left off the roster because of a brain cramp, either from the fans or the managers.  Has Cal Ripken been the best choice for starting AL third baseman for the past 5 years?  Only if you're blind and the president of the Cal Ripken fan club.  Ripken got 1.3 million more votes than Troy Glaus did last year despite Glaus doubling Ripken's totals in nearly every counting category.

I suppose there's something to be said for voting aging stars to the roster.  It's a nice way to pay homage to them for years of excellence.  Of course, those guys usually get a free ticket to Cooperstown and that's a pretty nice homage for years of excellence also.  But if fans really wanted to show their respect, they could also just go to the regular games and applaud those guys every time they came to the plate.

Of course, managers blow picks as well.  Joe Torre picked Ron Coomer to be the back-up third baseman one year, presumably for his glove and for his position flexibility.  It's hard to believe it was for his bat.  Regardless, who's gonna use a defensive replacement in an All-Star game?  Especially at third base, which only gets about 10% of all chances on batted balls.  And especially in a game when almost all of the pitchers are extreme strikeout pitchers.  The chances of a third baseman seeing more than 2 ground balls in the game are pretty remote.  So in essence, Torre picked a guy for the possibility of a third groundball out.  Hmm.  Maybe he'd have been better served by picking a guy for the possibility of crucial late inning at bat.

So I guess what needs to be decided is the purpose of this game.  Is it supposed to be the best players in the baseball, facing off in a single game to determine league supremacy?  Or is it a baseball card and memorabilia show in the form of a baseball game.  Personally, I prefer the matchups that occurred in the 60's and 70's, when the game was about league pride and everyone came with winning foremost on their mind.

My sense is that the All-Star game should be about pitting the best against the best.  No scrubs, no call-ups, no career middle relievers to face.  Just a pure match-up of the unquestioned best talent in the game.  Every player, the best at his position and at the peak of his ability, so that every at bat is filled with tension and the promise of something amazing happening.  I mean, how amazing is it to watch Randy Johnson  strike out Cal Ripken.  Or Pedro Martinez get Walt Weiss to ground weakly to short.  Ho hum.

One way to assure this happens is to change the voting process.  Instead of giving the fans all the power to determine the starting line-ups, let the players and managers/front office people from around the league vote as well.  Give the each group 30% of the total vote.  Then allow each All-Star team's manager a 10% tie-breaking vote.  If a player is good and the fans really like him, he'll get in.  If he's over the hill or simply not that good, he'll be weeded out.  Another benefit would be that this method is balanced enough to open up the vote for the pitching staff to the fans as well.  Currently, the fans have no vote in that matter.  Everyone would gain something with this reform and it would be more conducive to building two winning teams, rather than two semi-popular ones.

But since selection reform isn't a hot issue in baseball, it's up to us, the fans, to make sure we get as good an All-Star game as possible.  So stay informed; keep reading the newspaper, surfing the internet, and reading this website (by the way, thank you for doing that today).  By voting for the best players, we can make this a yearly classic event, like the All-Star game in 1971.   Each team was a who's who in baseball history.  The AL fell behind after surrendering home runs to Johnny Bench and Hank Aaron, but Reggie Jackson led the comeback charge with a titanic blast, a home run that was still rising as it his the transformer on the right field roof of Tiger Stadium.  Often called one of the best All-Star games ever, it's no coincidence that each team was made up of the very best each league had to offer.  We could be that fortunate every year.

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