By Brent Hubbard - Angelswin.com Columnist
"This time it counts".
The slogan pushed down our collective throat by Major League Baseball since the All-Star Game started “counting” in 2003 after ridiculously haphazard player substitution patterns in the 2002 game left each team with no players remaining as the game went to extra innings.
This turned the game from a mere exhibition, into a sort of half-exhibition game, where the best players don’t actually always play in the game. I understand MLB’s motivations for wanting to increase the drama in the game, creating more marketable TV and a more marketable game. Before it “counted,” the game was beset by players skipping with nagging injuries and/or not really taking pride in their league.
This morning, I was struck by comments made by Hall-of-Fame Pitcher Bob Gibson on AM Radio. I didn’t realize that during Gibson's career players were fined for merely talking to the opposing team’s players. That and the fact they stayed with one team most of their career, unless they were traded, led to an infinite loyalty to one team and one league, something that is missing in today’s game. That fierce desire to win, so embodied by Gibson while on the mound, has left America’s Pastime since the advent of Free Agency. How can one fiercely compete against a player when that player may be on your team the next season?
This has led to a significant decline in the interest in the All-Star Game, since we fans have many similar emotions to the ones the players must feel. As an Angels fan, should I root against guys like Roy Oswalt or Dan Haren, when I really want them traded to the Angels? Should I root against Francisco Rodriguez after he bled Angels Red for six seasons?
Yet the biggest problems I have with the game ultimately come down to the selection of players and the way they are subsequently used in the game. It is these problems for which I present the seven solutions below:
1) FAN VOTING = BALLOT STUFFING?
Fan voting was not always part of the All-Star Game. From 1935 to 1946, each All-Star manager selected his entire team. In 1947, fan voting at the stadiums began. This led, ten years later, to the infamous ballot stuffing conducted by the Cincinnati Reds, in which seven of the eight position players elected were Reds. Fan voting was discontinued, then reinstated in 1970.
The subsequent introduction of Internet voting, while a marketing success, has led me to the same concerns that Commissioner Ford Frick faced in 1957.
Online Balloting is the modern-day equivalent of stuffing the ballot box. It begins way too early and dramatically favors the bigger names in the bigger markets. Add in the fact the "candidates" printed on the ballots are chosen far too early to know who is actually even playing a certain position for a certain team and an often less-than-informed fan base and you've got a system rife for mistakes from the very start. Why they can’t just do Internet voting kiosks at the parks is beyond me.
My solution? Fan voting should take place over a few weeks from, say, June 15 to July 1. Reducing the window of voting should lead to better choices by the fans. They also should be allowed to vote for a starting pitcher and a reliever, something that is not allowed right now.
Sometime in the 1960s, the distinction between left fielder, center fielder, and right fielder was dropped. This needs to be reinstated; otherwise the difference between middle infielders should be dropped, too. And catchers for that matter should be lumped in with pitchers. So what if you elect eight first basemen to your team? It is essentially the same thing. Each outfield position has its own demands and its own stars, and should be treated the same as every other position on the diamond. My additional caveat is that fans should be given the opportunity to vote for a utility player from any position to alleviate the problems that probably led to the dropping of the outfielder distinctions in the first place. This way fans can vote for both Torrii Hunter and Ichiro Suzuki, but still vote for outfielders independently.
3) PLAYER VOTING = POPULARITY CONTEST?
This should occur on the same day, all across baseball, Say July 2 or 3, so they can see who was voted in by the fans and know in advance of their vote which players are going. After all, the game counts, so the players should be able to analyze the roster, see who the fans left out and vote accordingly. Right now, players vote 16 players onto each team. This vote should be reduced to nine position players, the same as the fans get, and two pitchers — a starter and a reliever.
Player voting was re-introduced in 2003 after people criticized managers from picking from their own teams instead of more deserving players from around their respective leagues.
4) PUT THE BEST PLAYERS ON THE FIELD. ALL-STAR BENCHMARKS?
That’s right, folks; I firmly believe that players should have to qualify for the voting process. Position players should have to be qualified for the All-Star process by playing in at least half of their team's games prior to the start of fan voting. My June 15 deadline allows for at least 60 games per team, and position players who don’t play in at least 30 will be ineligible for All-Star Rosters. I am sick and tired of injured stars or popular names who don’t play being picked to represent their league as the best at their position. I don’t care what a player did the previous season — if they haven’t played enough this season, they’re out.
Pitchers will need to have pitched a certain number of innings per team game to qualify, similar to above. Relievers would have to have different criteria than starters, but I am sure it can be figured out.
I also believe that players should need to qualify statistically for fan and player voting by placing in the top-30th percentile at their position based on a number of different statistical categories, including defense. I am not a stat guy, but players with a sub-.240 batting average are not and should not be All-Stars. Nor are pitchers with a 5.00 ERA. They do not have to be in the top-30th percentile in every statistical category, but more of a combination of all. Hire Rob Neyer or another stat-guy to make up a formula to work.
5) LIMIT THE NUMBER OF REPRESENTATIVES FROM ONE TEAM
As long as there is a minimum one All-Star per team rule, there needs to be a maximum of five All-Stars per team. I don't care if we see another '27 Yankees team, having more than five players from one team is a joke.
As Rex Hudler said during Sunday’s Angels-Yankees broadcast, people on the East Coast are often in bed before the box scores come in and the papers don’t always have box scores ready for the morning edition. But with the rise of the Internet, there is no excuse. I get box scores on my iPhone during every game being played and can go back to yesterday’s scores in seconds. I can even see highlight videos.
So this ultimately comes down to big market favortism — and moreover East Coast Bias. Internet voting is basically big market ballot stuffing. Five players is a legitimate representation of any team; more than that is ridiculous. A five-player max would also prevent an All-Star manager from filling the roster with his own players.
In 2006, eight of the nine starting players for the American League team at one point in the balloting were members of the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox. How is this not blatant geographical favoritism?
And this prevents small markets from being successful, as those markets don’t get to see their stars on the All-Star team. The fact that one team can have so many legitimately deserving players is a problem, but one simply solved by reducing the player vote from 16 to 11. This along with the five player maximum gives the manager more leeway in his selections to better represent his league, small-market clubs and the sport.
FYI: There have been 10 instances where five or more All-Stars were selected from one team since 2005. The 2009 Boston Red Sox have 6, 2008 Red Sox had 7, 2006 Red Sox had 6, the 2004 Red Sox had 6. The 2006 Chicago White Sox had 7 All-Stars, 2009 Tampa Bay Rays have 6, 2007 Detroit Tigers had 5, the 2006 New York Mets had 6, 2005 Cardinals had 5, and the 2008 Chicago Cubs had 8.
AL and NL West teams have had a total of 75 All-Stars among the nine teams over the past 5 seasons. (Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, Arizona, Colorado, San Diego, and both Los Angeles teams.) Success on the field has not translated to players in the All-Star Game, as that is an average of 1.67 players per team.
The 10 AL East and NL East teams (New York x 2, Boston, Toronto, Tampa, Florida, Atlanta, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia) have had 131 All-Stars over the past 5 seasons, which is an average of 2.62 per team. Take out perennial losers Washington and Baltimore, and you have 3.025 players per team.
6) PUT THE BEST PLAYERS ON THE FIELD, V. 2
Fans, as a rule, aren’t as knowledgeable as the All-Star managers. That’s why I think though fans should be able to vote for players to be on the team, the manager should not be beholden to the fans for his starting line up. The manager should be able to pick his own starting lineup in order to try and win the game.
7) NO MORE TIES
No, it’s not what Dad said to me at Christmas last year; it’s the problem with making the All-Star Game count while trying to get everyone playing time and yet keeping players in reserve to be able to win the game and secure home field advantage. My solution? If the game goes into extra innings, players who have been removed from the game should be eligible to come back in. Players who were removed after the first inning should be eligible for the tenth, after the second, the eleventh, and so on. Catchers are already allowed to come back into the game once being removed in extra innings, so this isn’t that much of a stretch.
All of these suggestions should allow for a more competitive contest and a game that truly represents the stars in the league. And one to which I would definitely be more interested in tuning in.