Sunday, July 12, 2009

No More Fun and Games at the All-Star Game

There was a time when the all-star game was a respite for the league's best players. While they still played in the game, they still enjoyed the two or three days the all-star break offered without consequence. Fans could see their favorite players from across both leagues compete against one another on the same field. From 1959 to 1962 they even played two all-star games each season! For a day, fans get to see two superstar studded lineups go at it with only fun and a collective love of the game on everybody's mind.

Not anymore. For the past six seasons (seven including this season), the winning league enjoys home field advantage in the World Series, seemingly a huge deal for teams with a legitimate shot at playing for a title, but I'm still not sure if the all-stars care enough to risk injury in a game that really doesn't mean all that much in terms of actually getting to the World Series in the first place.

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'This Time It Counts' has been met with a mix of praise and contempt. Fans that hold the 'This Time It Counts' notion in contempt see it as taking something away from what used to be a fun respite for both the players and the fans. Fans watched the game for the sheer fun of it and players could hit the diamond without worrying about home field advantage, the standings and the playoffs for a few days and just play baseball.

As Jim Litke points out in a 2007 article, I'm not sure that even players and managers with a real shot at playing come October place too much importance on the game. Litke points out that "today's ballplayers wouldn't risk knocking over a Wheaties box - let alone each other - in a game that doesn't count in the standings." Selig's attempt to make this thing mean something has actually had little effect on the way the game is played.

In the 2007 All-Star Game, as Litke also notes, Aaron Rowland of the NL squad hit a pop fly with the bases loaded to end the game. NL Manager Tony La Russa of the St. Louis Cardinals held his own first baseman and one of the league's best players, Albert Pujols, on the bench despite the game's 'importance'.

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Until we have a World Series where home-field advantage actually seems to make a difference, the outcome of the All-Star Game won't mean squat to any all-star that participates.

Since the rule was put in place in 2003, the AL has won home-field advantage each year.

In the first year the new rule was in place the Florida Marlins defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series despite AL home-field advantage. In 2004, the Boston Red Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals in a series where home-field advantage seemed to mean very little. The Chicago White Sox swept the Houston Astros in 2005, another instance where home-field advantage did not seem to matter. The next year, 2006, saw the St. Louis Cardinals defeat the Detroit Tigers 4-1 despite AL home-field advantage. In the 2007 World Series the Boston Red Sox completed a clean sweep of the Colorado Rockies. In the 2008 World Series, the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Tampa Bay Rays, stealing the home-field advantage from the Rays with a Game 1 victory in St. Petersburg.

It should be pointed out that in all instances except for 2004, the AL teams had better records than their NL counterparts and would have enjoyed home-field advantage anyway if the home-field went to the team with the better record, as it should. In 2004, the Red Sox were coming off the comeback of the ages when they defeated the New York Yankees in the ALCS despite being down three games to none. Nothing, not home-field advantage, Albert Pujols or Batman himself could have stopped that momentum.

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So, until the team with an inferior regular season record wins home-field advantage because of the outcome of the All-Star Game and the World Series comes down to a Game 7, bottom of the 9th walk-off, I'm not sure the all-stars or the managers will place much stock in the All-Star Game's whimsical 'This Time It Counts' slogan.

The American League has not lost an all-star game since their 1997 victory at Jacobs Field in Cleveland. The 2002 game ended in a tie when the two sides ran out of pitchers. Since the rule took effect in 2003, the AL team has won three World Series and the NL team has won three World Series. The AL team has held home-field all six years.

How about they play the game just to play the game? Before the new rule, the NL and AL were awarded home-field on a rotating basis. Not so sure that screams fairness either. Let's award home-field to the team with the better regular season record. Some argue that the AL team would be at a disadvantage because the American League is much stronger than the National League. But as I just pointed out, in the six years the rule has been in effect, the AL team has had the better record anyway five times despite this supposed 'disadvantage'. If the AL is stronger and at a disadvantage in this model, let them prove their strength come October.

Written By Danny Hobrock
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