Wednesday July 14th, 2010

There comes a time when the All-Star Game simply makes your points for you. That time was last night in Anaheim, where what could have been a tense, dramatic, exciting ninth inning was reduced to just another July baseball game by, well, a distinct lack of All-Stars. This has been the problem for the All-Star Game for a long time now, as the best players in baseball play fewer innings, take fewer at-bats, do fewer heroic, memorable things. As the rosters have expanded, and the managerial approach to the game has changed, we've been given about half an All-Star Game, and half a "All-Best-Stats-Through-About-June-20" Game. Now, for some people, the two terms are equal, but the problem with that mindset was on display last night.

Cut to the ninth inning, a 3-1 ballgame, National League leading, trying to win for the first time since 1996. That was a very, very long time ago; VORP didn't exist. Elvis Andrus wasn't in school yet. Sports was reality TV. Charlie Manuel called upon Jonathan Broxton, the best closer in the NL, to pin down the win. Joe Girardi, in an AL dugout bursting at the seams with the best players in baseball, countered with...David Ortiz. Ortiz was a superstar four years ago; now, he's an aging platoon player on the team because the rules say a backup DH gets elected to the AL team. Those "best players in baseball" were long out of the game.

Ortiz reached on a bloop single, and Girardi turned to Adrian Beltre. Beltre was one of the best players in baseball in 2004, then spent five years in Seattle as a league-average batter and plus defender, never sniffing an All-Star invitation. A big three months got him on this year's team. He struck out on three pitches as Alex Rodriguez, one of the 15 or so best players in baseball history, named to the team by Girardi, watched from the dugout.

Next up, John Buck. Buck as a career OBP of .299. He's an All-Star because he hit some homers in the first half, Victor Martinez was hurt and the AL is pretty thin in catching right now. Nonetheless he was batting as the tying run against a power right-hander in a game that, I've been told, counts. Buck popped to short right-center, the ball landed for what should have been a hit, but the safety was wiped out when Ortiz was forced out at second base. The decision to not run for Ortiz was widely criticized, but I'll absolve Girardi here; pinch-running for a player carrying a non-essential run, as Ortiz was, is wasteful and is just the kind of thing I'd criticize a manager for in a real game. Ortiz would have to score if the AL were to tie or win, and any runner in that situation is not going to take chances on the bases. It just so happened that there was a play, an unusual one, where Ortiz's lack of speed came into play. Not running for Ortiz was the standard play, and Girardi doesn't deserve blame for the outcome.

Finally, with Buck on first and two out, Ian Kinsler came up. Kinsler, like Buck, was an injury replacement, the third-highest vote-getter among AL second basemen. Kinsler is having a good year; after missing almost all of April, he batted .310 with more walks than strikeouts, though without his customary power. He's been an All-Star before, in 2008, and is certainly a notch above Buck in terms of career achievement. On the other hand, he was the third-highest vote-getter among AL second basemen and only there because of Dustin Pedroia's broken foot, which is a thin standard.

Think about the NBA All-Star Game for a second. Yeah, they spend 42 minutes in a glorified layup line, running the :04 Seconds or Less offense, alley-ooping their way up and down the court all the way to the 120s. When the game is close, though, and we get down to the final minutes, the 10 best basketball players in the world get on the floor and bust their tails trying to win the game. I'm not saying the entire process is optimal, but the moments of highest tension are met with the greatest talent, and the combination produces riveting endings.

The MLB All-Star Game does the converse. The very best players, the brightest stars, are in the game at the beginning, and while we do get some entertaining matchups, there's a lack of game-level tension to drive intensity. Soon enough, as early as the fourth inning, the players the fans most want to see are exiting the game, usually in favor of the second-highest finisher in the player balloting. Over a couple of innings, we move from an All-Star Game to an All-First-Half Game, and just when you feel yourself caring about the outcome, you look up and you find a bunch of guys who bat sixth or lower for their own team taking the biggest ABs of the night.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with the All-Star Game. The AL sent three guys to the plate as the tying run in the ninth, and those three players had combined for one All-Star appearance in 22 seasons prior to 2010. One bats ninth for his team, another sixth (seventh when everyone's healthy). Of the three, two were only there because better players were injured. Where the NBA All-Star Game gets good, the MLB All-Star Game just gets random.

For all the rules changes, from "This Time it Counts" to roster expansion to in-game manipulation, MLB still isn't addressing the biggest reason its All-Star Game falls flat. And until the starters go deeper into the game, until we see Albert Pujols and Evan Longoria and Ichiro Suzuki in the spots we see LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, the game will always fall flat. The star players have to commit to playing more, the non-stars have to accept that being named to the team is its own reward, and the managers have to act as if those two things are in play.

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