PHOENIX – Say what you will about MLB’s All-Star Game.
Call it ridiculous that the winner of an exhibition game clinches home-field advantage for its league representative in the World Series. Say that the bloated rosters — made even larger by the handful of players who beg out of the game – make a mockery of the contest.
There is certainly some truth behind those criticisms. But for all of its flaws — and the All-Star Game is flawed — it’s still the best of its kind.
Tuesday night’s game, won 5-1 by the National League on the strength of MVP Prince Fielder’s 3-run homer, had its share of silly moments you are unlikely to see in your average, run-of-the mill baseball game. Heath Bell’s Earth-shaking slide into the mound in the eighth inning certainly helped everyone remember that when all is said and done, this is still at its heart an exhibition game, a showcase for the fans.
But there was also an intensity you don’t see in other games of its kind. Not in the NBA – and to some extent, the NHL – where players treat defense as if playing it will cost them their shoe contracts. And definitely not in the NFL’s Pro Bowl, where competitors can barely gather the interest to take a three-point stance for a field goal attempt.
Instead, we witnessed Toronto Blue Jays star Jose Bautista sliding feet-first into the wall to rob Brian McCann of extra bases. We saw majestic homers by Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez. We got a first-hand look at the electric stuff of rookie Michael Pineda and the steady brilliance of Roy Halladay. We saw the strong outfield arm of Hunter Pence, gunning down Bautista at the plate, and the lightning-quick first step of Starlin Castro, who easily swiped a pair of bases after entering the game as a pinch-runner.
There was no dogging it on Tuesday, and aside from Bell’s playful entrance, no hot-dogging it either. This was baseball at its everyday best, only played by collection of not-so-everyday players.
“It’s absolutely a normal baseball game,” said St. Louis’ Lance Berkman. “It doesn’t have the intensity of a playoff game, but in terms the effort and in terms of the concentration (it’s a normal game). Baseball isn’t a sport that lends itself to a lack of concentration or a lack of effort. You can’t coast through a baseball game.”
MLB commissioner Bud Selig has taken a lot of heat for the rule – his brainchild – giving the winner of the All-Star Game home-field advantage in the World Series, and deservedly so. It seems ridiculous to allow a player who might not make it anywhere near the playoffs play a role in which team wins the championship.
But in a chat with writers on Tuesday, Selig made it clear that the criticism doesn’t bother him. He said MLB’s TV partners like it that way, and he claimed the players do, too.
And for the most part, he seems to be right.
Cincinnati Reds slugger Joey Votto said that NL manager Bruce Bochy stressed how important home-field advantage is, and that it helped Bochy’s San Francisco Giants jump out to a 2-0 Series lead last fall before dispatching the Texas Rangers in five games.
“Just hearing that from his perspective really helped,” Votto said, “and I think it kept our eyes on the prize.”
Votto said that while he thinks players have always competed hard in All-Star Games, Selig’s rule will lessen the likelihood of past antics, mentioning specifically the Randy Johnson-John Kruk shenanigans in 1993.
Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee agreed.
“Regardless of who makes the World Series, someone out here is going to be impacted, so it’s important,” Lee said. “It’s not just a showcase, it’s not just a game where we’re out there messing around having a good time. It’s meaningful. We’re going to do everything we can to win.”
Berkman, however, said that it’s the nature of baseball itself, not Selig’s rule, that makes baseball’s All-Star Game the best of its kind.
“Really and truly, baseball is an individual sport played under the auspices of a team,” he said. “Whenever you have individual competition, nobody wants to get embarrassed. You’ve got guys who are throwing as hard as they can throw, we try as hard as we can to not make an out, and then the guys on defense are trying to make every play, so that leads to a good baseball game.
“The level of play is exactly the way it is in the regular season, which I don’t think you get in the NBA All-Star Game, and certainly not in the Pro Bowl.”
So yes, Derek Jeter, as well as some of the other big-name stars, begged out of the game. The rosters are outrageously large and the lineups are watered down. The home-field advantage rule is questionable at best.
But for all its flaws, MLB’s All-Star Game is still the best of its kind, a marketing tool for the game and an exciting showcase for the fans, as it’s intended to be.
It’s hard to argue with the results on the field.