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Putting less on the line

Think the Fox people will be happy about that one? This week the Major League Baseball Players Association will begin discussions with major league baseball officials about possible changes to the All-Star Game and the postseason format. Largely to appease Fox, the players had agreed to a two-year experiment in which the league that wins the All-Star Game gets home field advantage for the World Series. As a condition of that agreement, players insisted baseball officials review with them not only the All-Star Game but also the postseason format.

That time has arrived. Of course, the owners don't want to change a thing.

Commissioner Bud Selig, for instance, has been trumpeting the success of last year's postseason as a reason to keep the status quo. And the Fox people need "This Time It Counts'' to help market the All-Star Game as not just an exhibition, but an exhibition with meaning, even if that sounds oxymoronic.

The suits and the players are -- surprise! -- miles apart on this one.

"I would say in the last two years more players have moved from the 'No way' camp to the 'It's not that bad' camp,'' players' union executive Gene Orza said, "but that still doesn't come close the majority of players who believe the home field advantage should be decided on the basis of which team had the better record during the season.''

That thinking sounds perfectly logical, but the players' position ignores the real reason we're even talking about this at all: The All-Star Game was becoming less relevant every year, and in addition to the declining ratings, you could tell by the growing line of limos whisking players away from the All-Star ballpark before the game was even over so they could hop jets out of town.

So Fox came up with a snazzy hook for the game: tie it to the World Series. No one looked at how the home field was decided in the past (simply, it alternated annually between leagues) and decided it needed to be overhauled. The horse to this cart was the fading luster of the All-Star Game. I admit I like the idea. I like having something riding on the game. I think it can build its own relevant history very quickly, with Hank Blalock's 2003 home run gaining resonance, if not another world championship for the Yankees. And replacing a system based wholly without merit (the alternating-year system) is fine by me.

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Now, the players want to switch the horse with the cart. If they succeed in their mission to change the home-field advantage system, then what happens to the All-Star Game? It's just another exhibition. And after two years of hyping a game with something on the line, Fox will be in the awkward position of having a game in which the meaning was publically sucked out of it. And please, don't give me the U.S. vs. the World format for the All-Star Game. Baseball should pride itself on being such a great inclusionary sport. Dividing up teams based on nationality strikes me as regressive.

Do people watch the All-Star Game because the site of Game Seven of the World Series is on the line? Drawing that direct of a line is folly. Too many other factors come in to play -- most importantly, the competitiveness of the game, which is why this year's ratings took a nosedive.

"It was aberrational,'' Orza said, "to have Roger Clemens giving up six runs in the first 14 minutes.''

The home-field advantage, though, is like that added ingredient in your laundry detergent that you can't see. It's a reason to put "New and Improved'' on the package. And the whole experience gets something of a halo effect created by the buzz. Fans like to know what the players are playing for, be it money (though game-show contestants are afforded more slack there than pro athletes), love of the game (the myth of college sports), league pride (which worked a generation ago with the All-Star Game but is a joke now) or vanity (the NBA All-Star Game, which is basically a fancy photo shoot for the baddest poster).

Interleague play has killed the mystery of the All-Star Game, the Seaver-vs.-Reggie kind of matchups that happen all the time now. So why not play for home field in the World Series? Baseball still owns the two summer nights of the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game. There is no competition from other sports. The Derby, in fact, is in danger of swallowing the Game. Ratings among the coveted 18-49 male demographic were up 54 percent for the Derby, and 42 percent overall. (Give credit to baseball securing the services of Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa for that.) The Derby continues to be a fun, if ill-produced night. The Game needs that little bit of seriousness to work right.

Meanwhile, the players will discuss changes to the postseason format this week as well. The league with the homefield advantage, for instance, should start and finish the LCS first. (It didn't happen last year, leaving the Marlins to wait on a plane in Chicago for the Yankees and Red Sox to decide the AL pennant.) There may be more talk about extending the Division Series to a best-of-seven, or the inclusion of another wild card team in each league. There definitely will be talk about having the team with the best record get World Series homefield advantage, and whether that can be done logistically without last-minute scheduling problems.

"We hope they come [to the talks] without a closed mind,'' Orza said.

A tip of the cap to Jay Gibbons of the Orioles, Torii Hunter of the Twins, Derek Jeter of the Yankees, Chipper Jones of the Braves, Mike Lowell of the Marlins and Kevin Millwood of the Phillies. The six players donated their time to film service announcements for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, encouraging parents to watch a ballgame with their kids, which can open dialogue on a variety of issues kids face. Because of the game's strong appeal and connections to families, baseball and its players should continue to take a lead role among sports in dealing with children's issues.