Seriously, there's too much at stake
Another year, another All-Star Game.
What a great concept: mark the symbolic halfway point of the season with a few days off for most, but still give baseball fans their fix with a showcase of MLB’s best players, with all teams represented and bragging rights for their respective leagues up for grabs.
Except that’s not all.
Unfortunately, 2016 marks yet another year in which we go into the Midsummer Classic not exactly sure why we’re playing the game.
Well, that’s not entirely true. We know it’s good fun watching the best of the best. We love seeing rival players dish out high-fives under the unity of the same uniform and square off against opponents they don't often face. And the subplots can be just as intriguing as the main event (any chance we can get Rougned Odor and Joey Bats in the same dugout one of these years?).
It’s got league-wide involvement, as well as a drawn-out voting and team selection process to maximise fan interest and engagement. Combine that with the fact it’s bunched in with the always-entertaining Home Run Derby and mildly amusing All-Star Legends and Celebrities softball game on baseball’s midseason calendar, and everything about it screams fun and festivities.
Except that’s not all.
The strange thing about this exhibition of baseball’s best is that the game actually matters. There’s a very real reward on the line for the winner: home-field advantage in the World Series.
This isn’t a new debate, but the idea that one league will get a critical edge over the other with the Commissioner’s Trophy on the line just doesn’t sit well when you consider the winning run might be given up by a reliever on a team that finishes 40 games out of first place, or driven in by a guy whose everyday teammates were all but out of playoff contention before the calendar flipped to July.
And heaven help the poor managers. They’re expected to get as many of their players into the game as possible, even though it comes at the expense of benching most of their starters after an at-bat or two and limiting the best arms on the roster to a couple of innings at most – all while theoretically trying to give the team they manage every other day of the year the best possible chance of winning the World Series.
It’s a nightmare scenario for any manager – unless their real club is out of contention by that point, in which case winning can take a back seat to ensuring they keep the fans happy.
To be clear, this isn’t a call for managers to be ruthless in the pursuit of victory by leaving their best starter out there to go twice through the order or ignoring the majority of their bench players until a favourable match-up presents itself. Nor is it a push to treat it like a kids’ T-ball game where nobody keeps score.
But shouldn’t there be a clear reason why it is being played?
Shouldn’t fans, players and managers alike know the main objective, whether it’s winning above all else or making sure the home-town representative gets an AB?
This hybrid game we have now, while certainly still an entertaining showcase of talent and excitement, is flawed.
You can’t manage a game to make sure everyone has a good time when the consequences of the outcome are so great.
Admittedly, it’s easy to poke holes in the fabric of a concept without being able to offer a potential solution. So here goes.
The fact every team is represented is one of the cornerstones of the All-Star Game – it would be a mistake to run the risk of failing to feature a player from the team that is hosting the festivities.
But since there’s always a chance a more deserving player might be squeezed out to make room for one from the host city – or a player elected as a result of fans stuffing the ballot box – the idea of giving each team the best chance to win is compromised before they even take the field.
With that in mind, how could we possibly justify the result deciding a key advantage for the most important series of the season?
But we still need a reason for the teams to actually want to win – outside of the competitive edge that drives them all, of course.
Well, the Home Run Derby participants are playing for charity (and some cool shiny things, of course). So why not follow that lead.
Find a sponsor to contribute a couple of thousand bucks to the charity of choice for each player in the game, then double down for those on the winning team. Maybe a little something extra for the favourite foundation of the game’s MVP, too.
Representatives from each charity could sit together in the first row behind their respective dugouts and those on the winning side could be invited onto the field to join in the post-game celebrations, snap a few photos and receive their oversized novelty cheques.
With no baseball-related ramifications riding on the result, surely it’d be easier for the players and managers to enjoy the occasion while still knowing victory would better benefit those who receive aid from their chosen cause.
On a day that showcases larger-than-life characters, there’s no harm in highlighting a human element and ensuring everyone walks away a winner.