The other day someone I know pointed out that not so long ago, an All-Star voter's work was easy. He would punch his or her ballot for the most famous player at each position and be done with it. Today, though, perhaps because fantasy baseball is so popular and makes fans so much more aware of which players are having good years, people seem to take the whole thing more seriously and put some effort into actually voting for the "right" players. And this is, indeed, a shame.
In its modern form, the All-Star Game is mainly a way for Major League Baseball to show off its fancy new ballparks. It also gives the sport a chance to show off the most irregular democratic procedures outside of Cook County, Ill., or Iran, involving as they do openly encouraged ballot stuffing; late announcements of expanded rosters; Byzantine selection processes involving fans, managers and the commissioner's offices; late rounds of fan voting; etc.
The game itself is lost in all this silliness, and rightly so. In an age of interleague play, cable highlight shows and games being broadcast onto telephones, there's no special appeal to being able to see a lot of good players on the field at one time. This is what makes the earnest voting of fans who scrupulously try to get their ballots right so inexplicable. At last count, Raul Ibanez had nearly three million votes, while Manny Ramirez had just less than half as many. That there are twice as many baseball fans who would rather reward Ibanez for a fine first half as would like to see commissioner Bud Selig stammering and turning purple while answering questions about Ramirez at a press conference is a sad commentary on our society's badly misplaced priorities.
Surely the best All-Star ballot is the one filled out by a 7-year-old who carefully votes for every Kansas City Royal, and surely the second-best is the one filled out by the drunk who carefully votes for the player at each position who has the worst hair. Personally my voting technique doesn't meet these standards, but I do vote simply for the player I'd most like to watch at each position for whatever reason. Because I like to watch good players, I usually end up with a fairly vanilla ballot, and that's true this year. But I can say in good conscience that I paid no attention whatsoever to how deserving the players were when voting, and thus did my part to fight against America's ever-decreasing standards.
With that explanation, here is my 2009 All-Star ballot, as actually filled out and submitted at Chicago's Sox Park:
First base: Carlos Pena, Tampa Bay: This was one of the easier choices I made. Pena is a terrific player, if not quite as good as peers Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Morneau. Every time he comes to the plate, though, one is reminded that both the Yankees and Red Sox got rid of him in the same year, and this after Oakland had done the same. I'm not much for treacly stories of the triumph of the human spirit, but anyone who has ever come in for a rough patch at work can look at Pena as an inspiration. And his fine play offers anyone who has ever tired of hearing Billy Beane and Theo Epstein lauded as geniuses the chance to smirk smugly to themselves.
Second base: Mark Teahen, Kansas City: No, he's not quite as good as, say, Ian Kinsler or Dustin Pedroia, and no, he's not actually a second baseman, having played 23 innings at the position this year. No matter. The idea of playing third basemen such as Teahen, rather than failed shortstops, at second base is a sound one, and this is my small way of encouraging it.
Third base: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay: At this point I think you can say that Longoria is a better player than Alex Rodriguez, full stop. However much of a beast he is at the plate and in the field, though, that's only one reason why I voted for him. The other is that in last year's playoffs in Boston I saw him wearing one of the coolest jackets I've ever seen any major leaguer wear, a worn-out slip of vintage brown leather that most millionaires wouldn't use to wash their car. There is much to be said for a famous, rich athlete who has the sense to wear such a jacket.
Shortstop: Derek Jeter, New York: Never having bought into the Jeter mystique -- he's a truly great player, and that's enough -- I still find him one of the more entertaining players in the game. Any time he plays one has the chance to see him dive two feet back off the plate on a pitch that nicked the inside corner, trying to sell it as a ball, or pumping his fist in the field after some routine throw to first base.
Catcher: Jason Varitek, Boston: This is no slight to Joe Mauer, one of baseball's best players and one of the most fun to watch. But is there anyone who looks like a ballplayer quite as much as Varitek? If he broke out some story about catching the Dean brothers in his early days, I wouldn't be a bit surprised.
Left field: Carl Crawford, Tampa Bay: The best thing about Crawford is that while he's fast, he's more football fast than baseball fast -- he's no waterbug, but a big, thick guy who runs the bases hard. He may be a poor man's Tim Raines, but that makes him more worth paying to watch than nearly any other player in the sport.
Center field: Carlos Gomez, Minnesota: This is another position where there are clearly better players than my pick, but Gomez is just such a thrilling defender to watch that I had to give him the nod over Adam Jones and Grady Sizemore. He has the rare knack of being able to just float around the outfield, running so smoothly that he may as well be pedaling a bicycle and settling under balls as if he hadn't had to move for them.
Right field: Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle: I always wondered what Tony Gwynn would have been able to do later in his career if he hadn't put on so much weight, and Suzuki, who's hitting nearly .370 at 35 while playing his usual outstanding defense, seems to offer a pretty good idea. I'll be voting for him until he retires, and I doubt that will be any time soon. He has a pretty good chance of racking up 3,000 major league hits by the time he's 40, which isn't bad for someone who started at 27.
First base: Prince Fielder, Milwaukee: Yes, I know Albert Pujols is having a year that stands in about the same relation to his usual year as his usual year stands in relation to a good year from Fielder. This ignores the crucial point that Fielder is a vegetarian, which makes him the rarest thing in baseball: a true role model. Millions of moms and dads can point to him and tell their children, "He doesn't eat meat, either, and he's so big and strong! Now finish your seitan and kale." It doesn't hurt that the sight of a full-power Fielder swing is one of the best in the game.
Second base: Skip Schumaker, St. Louis: Obviously Chase Utley would be the pick on merit, but Schumaker, the hustling nobody who made himself into a Cardinals starter through sheer grit and determination and the like, so embodies the spirit of what St. Louis fans like to think their baseball is about that it seems almost churlish not to vote for him to play in front of the home faithful. What a hand he would get!
Third base: David Wright, New York: There's no mildly ironic reason here; I just love watching Wright play. His freakish ability to maintain exactly the same value he always has while his style has changed from that of Ron Santo to that of an unholy cross between Wade Boggs and Adam Dunn has been one of the best stories of the year so far. Hopefully he'll hit .360 and strike out 200 times.
Shortstop: Jose Reyes, New York: It looks as if he may never quite make the leap that would make him a Barry Larkin-class player, but he's fine all the same and there really isn't a more exciting player in the majors. There may also not be one so taken for granted, though the shabby results that the Mets have had since he's been out with injury may do a bit to change that.
Catcher: Geovany Soto, Chicago: No, he isn't having much of a follow on to his brilliant rookie campaign, but I voted for him all the same, and this before he started a sequence of events that led to his impossibly crusty manager, Lou Piniella, admitting that he had smoked weed in his zany youth. Like Varitek there's something impossibly old school about Soto that probably just has to do with his looks but that contrasts pleasingly with his increasingly peacock-like major league peers.
Left field: Alfonso Soriano, Chicago: A difficult choice here between Soriano and Ryan Braun, a better player but one who doesn't challenge my preconceptions about how baseball should be played nearly as much. Without any real concern for what he's swinging at or where it is, Soriano has made himself one of the more reliably excellent hitters in baseball, and as much as that's attributable to freakish genetics and as much better as he might be if he learned what not to swing at, he's just fine the way he is.
Center field: Carlos Beltran, New York: If Reyes isn't the most underappreciated player in baseball, Beltran may be. In neither case is that because people don't credit them for being good, obviously, but for whatever reason neither seems to get the credit for being as good as he is. Beltran is a nice year or two away from being a really serious Hall of Fame candidate, and yet half of what you hear about him involves his unwillingness to make a fool of himself by shouting at his teammates or breaking water coolers or whatever it is players are supposed to do to show "fire." (Playing at the highest level through really nasty injuries doesn't count, apparently.)
Right field:Jeff Francoeur, Atlanta: Apologies to Justin Upton, but when baseball no longer has a place for the likes of Francoeur, a player so extravagantly talented that he can hold down a major league job despite seemingly having little more idea of what to do with that talent than a tomcat, baseball will no longer be worth watching.