How to fix the MLB All-Star Game
I love the All-Star Game. As a kid, the idea of watching the greatest superstars converge on a diamond was truly intoxicating. Excitement built weeks in advance, and the very act of watching the game filled me with joy. Due to the time difference, I was usually forced to watch a grainy taped recording off Channel 5 here in Britain, but that just added to the majesty.
Part of what made the event so great was the sense of unfolding history. Baseball was the first sport to establish an official All-Star Game. It was the brainchild of Arch Ward, editor of the Chicago Tribune, who hatched the idea when Mayor Edward Kelly wanted a major sports showcase as part of Chicago’s World Fair. Comiskey Park was the scene and 1933 was the year. Babe Ruth parked the first home run in All-Star history, and twenty of the thirty-six players on those first rosters wound up in Cooperstown. That’s the legacy of greatness that is continued each summer. That’s the legacy I adore.
The NFL didn’t launch its Pro Bowl until 1939. Hockey had no All-Star Game until 1947. Basketball didn’t join the club until 1951. So baseball’s Midsummer Classic holds a sacred place in the pantheon of sports. It’s birth coincided with baseball’s rise as the dominant national pastime, and there was tremendous hunger among fans to get involved. Initially intended as a one-off event, the All-Star Game became a yearly rite of summer, with the rare opportunity to see interleague play exciting the masses.
Unfortunately, even for diehard fans like me, the spectacle has lost some of its lustre in recent times. In 2002, both teams famously ran out of pitchers and the game was called in the eleventh inning. A year later, Bud Selig announced that home field advantage for the World Series would be granted to whichever league won the Midsummer Classic. While the old system of alternating home field advantage on a yearly basis was also far from perfect, the idea of All-Star Games ‘counting’ didn’t appeal to traditionalists. In fact, it reeked of desperation.
Right now, baseball still has the most popular All-Star Game, as judged by television ratings, but discontent bubbles below the surface. Part of it is pure nostalgia, as baseball fans yearn for bygone times, but frustration is also a just product of serious flaws that exist in the entire format.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the problems.
How the All-Star Game is broken
Home Field Advantage
Every season, teams play 162 games in a strict six-month window. The players face a gruelling travel schedule, passing through multiple time zones each week, and are still expected to compete at a world class level. Then, after grinding from February until late October, the pennant-winners find that home field advantage for the World Series is determined not by regular season record but rather by which league won a one-off contest in July. Somewhere along the line, that is contradictory. On the whole, it is just illogical. Yes, there needs to be an incentive for the All-Star Game, but certainly not this.
Every Team is Represented
Under the current rules, there is a fundamental paradox between the All-Star Game determining home field advantage for the World Series and every team having at least one representative. If Major League Baseball wants the Fall Classic to be affected by the All-Star Game in any way, the best twenty-five players must be selected. If it wants an exhibition in the true All-Star spirit, then every team can send a representative. One or the other. You can’t have your cake and eat it.
We all know the All-Star voting process is deeply flawed. Allowing fans to select rosters dates back to the very first contest, but in recent years it has been grossly manipulated. This year, for instance, Addison Russell rode the tidal wave of optimism among Cubs fans all the way to San Diego, where he’ll start the All-Star Game ahead of Corey Seager, Brandon Crawford, Aledmys Diaz and other viable candidates. Russell has had a good season, but doesn’t compare favourably to the other shortstops mentioned. This scenario happened last year, too, when Royals fans hijacked the ballot.
Aside from its end results, I also have deep reservations about the length of this voting process. In fact, it drives me crazy. In May, when players barely have two hundred plate appearances in the bank, we begin to see takeovers of social media as teams attempt to drive votes. By the time midsummer arrives, I’m excited for the All-Star Game just so the #ASGWorthy slogan will disappear from every game highlight known to man.
I recently wrote a feature about my growing distaste for interleague play. I implore you to read it, but here’s a brief synopsis: once, the system was new and exciting, but now it’s a daily annoyance that fails to inspire any feeling except frustration. This over-saturation of interleague play also diminishes the mystique of All-Star Games, which once provided the only opportunity to see American Leaguers compete against National Leaguers outside the World Series.
In recent years, Major League Baseball hasn’t alternated the host city between American and National Leagues. The next three All-Star Games will be held in San Diego, Miami and Washington, all National League cities. That’s a problem in itself, but one made doubly worse by two of the last three All-Star Games also being hosted by NL teams. Sure, the designated hitter is used on a regular schedule, and it’s admirable that often overlooked ballparks are being used, but is no tradition sacred in this game anymore?
From the moment each All-Star roster is announced, all hell breaks loose. There’s the Final Vote, and then a steady procession of pitchers dropping out of the game due to their throwing cycles not aligning with the schedule. It’s absolutely understandable, and I would never advocate a pitcher throwing on less than normal rest, but there’s no way of actually knowing who will pitch in the All-Star Game until you turn on the television. Too much noise. Too much confusion.
Lack of Variety
I’m personally fine with the current structure of All-Star week, with the Home Run Derby and Futures Game preceding the main event. However, a popular opinion among fans is that more variety is needed. Something akin to the NBA dunk contest is often prescribed, as Major League Baseball aims to engage children more while still honouring its finest tradition.
How to fix the All-Star Game
Now that we’ve established how the All-Star Game has been diminished, let’s take a look at some logical ways of improving it.
No World Series Implications
It’s time to totally separate the All-Star Game from the World Series. The intention to make the game more competitive was noble, but the present system has become illogical. Home field advantage in the Fall Classic should be determined by win-loss record during the regular season. The players endure too much during the daily grind to have it any other way.
A New Incentive
Of course, if the All-Star Game returns to exhibition status, there’s a threat that players won’t take it seriously. In bygone eras, there was a certain pride attached to representing a specific league, but that has mostly dissipated. In the modern age of millionaire ballplayers, there needs to be some reason for them to show up at the ballpark, which is where MLB must get creative.
Here’s my idea. In the Home Run Derby, a bounty of $25,000 is attached to each home run. This will accumulate throughout the entire contest to create a winners’ prize fund for the All-Star Game. Fans will be asked to vote for their All-Star Game MVP, and the recipient must be from the winning team. Then, the prize fund will be distributed 50-50 between the MVP’s preferred charity and every player earning the minimum salary in the victorious league.
So, for example: 160 home runs are hit in the Derby, creating a prize fund of almost $4 million. The American League wins the All-Star Game, with Mike Trout voted as MVP. His favourite charity receives almost $2 million from the prize fun, and the rest is shared between all American League players earning the league minimum salary during that season.
This is a novel way of injecting some meaning into the game, in addition to addressing the huge salary imbalances that exist in Major League Baseball. The Players’ Union may be sceptical of tampering with salaries in this way, and there would be Collective Bargaining issues, but it’s at least worth debating. In an ideal world, we could even find a way of letting the prize money trickle through to the minor leagues, where many players live well below the poverty line.
If MLB wanted to increase the prize fund, it could even add a new element to the Derby where a pitching machine is brought out at the end of each round and cranked up to 120-mph or so. Each player receives three chances to hit a home run that will instantly add $1 million to the prize fund. That would add real excitement and variety to the process and is sure to enthral fans young and old alike.
End Interleague Play
Interleague play has run its course. The games hold very little appeal anymore, and the distinction between leagues has largely been lost as baseball centralises it operations. That is a particularly sad situation for people who love the traditions of baseball, and I’d like radical action, including the eradication of interleague play, a rebalancing of the schedule and maybe even a shorter season. The All-Star Game would be even more enthralling if it was one of just two instances of interleague play each year. Baseball can learn from its past as it moves towards the future in this regard.
A New Voting System
Firstly, the fan vote needs to be truncated. I don’t even want to hear about the All-Star Game until June at the earliest. Once fans begin voting, they shouldn’t have sole autonomy over who starts the game. Instead, the fan vote should be combined with a ballot by players and media members to create a shortlist of three All-Star candidates at each position. Then, MLB should host a television showcase where the two managers pick their rosters from the shortlisted candidates. This would eliminate some of the voting controversies and create a fairer system where deserving players are rewarded.
Under these regulations, I would keep the rule of every team having a participant, but also consider a cap at three or four players per team so that the system cannot be totally manipulated. Instances of teams having more than five genuinely All-Star worthy players are exceedingly rare, and a greater balance is needed to make this a true showcase.
A Longer All-Star Break
Major League players receive a lot of money, but they also earn it. With the exception of snooker and cricket, a baseball game takes longer than that of any other sport to complete. A player can spend up to eight hours at the ballpark on any given day. And here’s the thing: they play every single day from February to October, traversing time zones and cities with alarming regularity. They could use some additional rest.
Therefore, the All-Star break should be extended to encompass perhaps ten or eleven days, allowing some recuperation during midsummer. Then, the game could also be scheduled in such a way that every single player is available, with all pitchers having enough rest to be available.
The Major League Baseball All-Star Game occupies a special place in the tapestry of sports. It has a trailblazing history and a traditional significance beyond baseball. By embracing both pillars on which its popularity rests and looking to make the kind of logical improvements laid out here, the Midsummer Classic can be restored to the greatness it once so readily enjoyed.