The All-Star Game could matter again…if we really want it to matter. But fixing it would require multiple changes – not only to the ASG itself, but to the general approach to the NL and AL conundrum within Major League Baseball. Of course, by “fix it”, we mean making the ASG relevant enough to players that we get the uber-competative games of yesteryear out of modern-day athletes…without “making the game count.” And the way I see it…there’s only one way to do that…Pride.
My plan is a simple one with four key factors.
1. MLB Must Reverse Course on League Unification: Major League Baseball has done everything possible to eliminate the disparity – or at least division – between the National League and the American League. That must stop. Re-instate league presidents. Encourage NL/AL pride. Make players care about their league again! I will admit, I’m not completely sure of the best way to do this, but multiple seemingly small things could combine to produce more league pride.
For example, I would encourage players to remain in their current league by outlawing interleague trades and mid-season league transfers. If a player starts the season in the NL, he should finish the season in the NL. If a team wants to trade him, they have to trade him to a team in the National League. If a player is released by an NL team, he must be signed by an NL team (exempting minor league contracts). Not only would this practice further develop a league-based identity for a player, but it would also cut down on the “baseball card trading” practices of swapping players to gain a temporary advantage two-thirds through the season. I hate watching a team like the Brewers gain an NL Central title just because they rented C.C. Sabathia for August and September. Get your deals done in the offseason. Live and die by roster you put together before Spring Training.
If teams were not allowed to make interleague trades mid-season, the list of potential trade partners is immediately cut in half…even more when you consider that teams are leery of trading players within their own division. Players remain in the same league longer, and on the same team longer, while developing a stronger, more defined NL/AL identity. With identity comes pride and a sense of belonging. With pride and ownership comes competition.
Note: Just because we have two distinct leagues doesn’t mean we can’t have the same rules in each league. The DH issue must be settled (get rid of it), and interleague play could continue if MLB really wants it. But unique league identities are critical to making the ASG matter again.
2. Allow Players and Managers to Select the Rosters: If you want players to care about the game, then you have to allow them to choose who will represent their team and league on the roster. We constantly hear from players about guys who play in the ASG but don’t really care to be there or win the game. It just doesn’t matter to them. Maybe they aren’t as competitive as the guy next to them. Maybe (when it counts) their team is mired in last place with no hope of getting to the World Series. Or maybe they’re just selfish. For whatever reason, those guys are a drag on the team…and on competitive pride. But how are fans supposed to know that?
The only guys who know which players care about playing and winning the ASG are the players and managers themselves. Let those guys weed out the “duds” in the group. Let them pick guys who can and will fight to win the game. Let them select the true All-Stars for the purpose of winning the game…not padding a player’s resume for his next arbitration hearing. And then let fans participate in the “final roster spot” voting like they do now…with a list of player-selected candidates.
3. Shrink the ASG Rosters: The rosters have grown in size for two reasons: 1) Because the game counts, managers have to be given the tools to win it rather than worry about running out of players in extra innings. If the game no longer counts, this is not a concern. A game could still conceivably end in a tie. 2) Pitchers in an exhibition game must be protected. You can’t run Roy Halladay out there for seven or eight innings just because you don’t have another pitcher in the ‘pen. This concept I support.
So, when we shrink the rosters, we still include more than 25 players (the standard MLB team roster size), but only a certain number of those roster spots can be position players (say, 15? and 15 pitchers? for a roster size of 30?). This accomplishes two things. First, it still protects pitchers by allowing more than enough pitchers to get the job done. Second, it reduces the number of position players a manager “must play,” which increases the amount of time the best (starting) players are on the field. In this way, you get more of a true baseball game instead of an “everybody plays” little league match-up. If Pujols is selected to the starting lineup, then he should play at least seven or eight innings.
But to do that, you have to remove the “it counts” stipulation in the ASG; otherwise, you risk running starters into the ground when you run out of bench players. You don’t want Albert Pujols playing third base for four innings into the 15th because the NL manager ran out of position guys. Let the game end – tie or not – after up to 10 innings of play. Sure, you’re going to get some ties, but the 10 innings you end up with will be more competitive and fun to watch than the 15 you’ll get in a game decided by the 83rd guy to be named to the ASG squad because three guys ahead of him were injured. You trade quantity for quality.
Finally, you alter the rules of baseball a bit. Hey, it’s an exhibition game…who cares? First, you create an injury rule. If, for example, Albert Pujols leaves the game because Prince Fielder pinch hit for Placido Polanco in the 7th inning…and then Fielder gets injured…Pujols should be allowed to re-enter the game so Fielder doesn’t have to finish the game injured and the NL doesn’t have to forfeit. Second, the manager hand-picks two players to travel with him to the ASG as reserve players. These players would NOT be considered All-Stars and they would NOT be on the roster. However, they would be eligible to enter the game in the event that so many players are unable to continue due to possible injury that it just becomes dangerous to leave them in the game.
The players are gap fillers – insurance policies, if you will. They may not be ASG quality because it could be difficult to convince a guy to go in that role just for the free trip, but at that point, it doesn’t matter. They fill a hole. Maybe they’re rookies or maybe they’re utility bench guys who just want the trip and participation in All-Star festivities. But they would NOT be All-Stars. They would be reserves.
4. Capitalize on Player Pride: The final piece of the plan is the most important. When a team wins the All-Star Game, you give their league bragging rights and a forum to brag. When a team loses…you rub it in. Sure, figuring out how to do this in an acceptable way could be tricky…but luckily MLB already has a perfectly acceptable method in place.
Players and teams wear customized patches on their uniforms all the time. An ASG Championship patch would be no different. And it could be fairly simple. If the NL team in the 2011 ASG wins the All-Star Game, every player in MLB (AL and NL) must wear a 2011 ASG NL Champions! patch on the sleeve of their jersey. Nothing obnoxious…just the year, the words “ASG Champions,” and the NL logo. And you make them wear it from the end of the All-Star break in 2011 to the beginning of the All-Star break in 2012 (to be temporarily replaced by the World Series logo for the final two teams in 2011).
Every time the AL guys put their uniforms on…that patch stares back at them, a reminder that they lost in 2011. And every time the NL guys put their uniforms on…the same thing…but a reminder of victory. I guarantee you…player pride will kick in. Players in the losing league - able to make selections to the team on their own – will vote for ASG candidates and send their teammates off in July with one, and only one, command.
“Get this damn patch off our arms.”
Players from the victorious league will send their players off with a similar warning: “Don’t come back in this clubhouse with that other league’s patch.”
Oh, and to add a bit of drama to the process…you create enough patches for every team and take them to the ASG. When the game is over, you give the appropriate patch – depending on which team won – to the players of each MLB team. That player must then hand deliver those patches to his team when he returns home. Imagine the shame of players having to hand-deliver losing patches to their teammates! Imagine the “game-ball-like” ceremonies by victorious players in the team clubhouse as they hand out winning patches!
You want to make the All-Star Game matter again? You leverage player pride. It’s the only way to motivate modern-day players. They’re too rich for monetary incentives to work…and half don’t have a stake in World Series home field advantage anyway.
But they all have pride.
So…that’s my two cents. I’m sure smarter, more experienced and involved guys could tweak the plan enough to make it work, but the four factors above must remain core to the plan. Player pride must be the goal. Players must be allowed to pick the All-Star squad if they are going to get behind their league’s team. Game and roster rules must change to allow the best players to play the majority of the game without risking unnecessary injuries.
It’s a package deal. Each factor requires the other.
But alas…I fear it will never happen. What say you?