Tag: Prince Fielder

Bud Selig

Money, money, money (and Bud Selig’s nirvana)


You probably know that one of Bud Selig’s big objectives as commissioner of baseball was to even the playing field – that is, to give the small-market teams a chance to contend. A luxury tax was instituted. Wildcards were added to the playoffs. The amateur draft had numerous rules changed. Sure, many people thought it was all a ploy to take money from the players and give it to the owners – and let’s not be naïve, I’m sure some of it WAS a money grab – but I always thought that competitive balance really was an issue close to his heart. Selig had been a small-market owner. He had grown up a small-market baseball fan. He will talk passionately and often about how every fan should have hope on Opening Day – he borrowed that from me, by the way — and I feel sure he believes that.

Funny thing: Here at the end of his tenure, baseball is closer to Selig’s nirvana than perhaps ever before. As Brian McPherson writes in the Providence Journal, the correlation between money spent and winning is at its lowest point in a long, long time. McPherson writes that the correlation right now between wins and money is actually smaller than the correlation between wins and alphabetical order.

Why is this a funny thing?

Because, I believe the reason for whatever actual effect we are seeing is pretty directly tied to the steroid years that Selig has been running away from for more than a decade.

Before we get to that, let’s look quickly at the playoff picture. As it stands right now:

American League

East: Baltimore (15th in Opening Day payroll)

Central: Kansas City (19th)

West: Oakland (25th) and Los Angeles Angels (6th)

Wildcard No. 1: Oakland or LA

Wildcard No. 2: Seattle (18th)

National League

East: Washington (9th in Opening Day payroll)

Central: Milwaukee (16th)

West: Los Angeles Dodgers (1st)

Wildcard No. 1: St. Louis (13th)

Wildcard No. 2: San Francisco (7th)

So, as you can see, the game is not being dominated by the highest-payroll teams anymore – of the Top 5 payrolls, only the Dodgers are in the playoffs in the season ended today. This, however, is at least a bit deceiving. Detroit has a Top 5 payroll and is just 1 1/2 games behind Kansas City – I suspect most people suspect the Tigers will catch the Royals before it’s all done. And those vampire Yankees, the team Michael Schur will tell you cannot be killed, linger two-and-a-half games behind the Mariners for the second wildcard spot. If just those two things switch, suddenly six of the ten playoff teams will have Top 10 payrolls. So it’s possible to get carried away by the moment.

Still, something is happening. Philadelphia is in shambles with a huge payroll. The Red Sox are again in last place with a huge payroll. The vampire Yankees have been hot lately but I’m still not buying them and they have flashed a whole lot more mediocrity than promise this year. The Rangers have a huge payroll and are the worst team in baseball. The Blue Jays and Diamondbacks and Reds and even the Twins are trying to spend money but seem to be spinning their wheels or are in screaming descent.

So, why is this happening? I have a theory – one that directly relates to my belief that many baseball teams are doing something that is monumentally stupid. I’m referring to the huge, long-term deals that they are giving players – deals that last until the players are in their mid-to-late 30s, and sometimes even carries them into their 40s. These contracts are a death trap, a suicide rap, and while there are exceptions to every rule, there are never more than a few exceptions. Giving huge, long-term contracts to players in their late 20s or early 30s is self-destructive. Period.

Let’s look at those big payroll teams that are struggling.

No. 2 in payroll: Yankees. Even with Alex Rodriguez mostly off the books for a year, the Yankees have these suffocating long term deals with Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, heck, they just scooped up the next two years of Martin Prado for some reason.

No. 3 in payroll: Philadelphia. Covered this one. Almost 70% of their payroll is going to big deal guys — Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon, A.J. Burnett and Jimmy Rollins. Throw another $16 million in the pot for Carlos Ruiz and Marlon Byrd. What the heck could Ruben Amaro have been thinking?

No. 4 in payroll: Boston. The Red Sox salary structure is a bit different from the Yankees or Phillies… but they are still putting an old team on the field. Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava, all in their 30s. You can see them trying desperately to get younger now.

No. 8 in payroll: Texas. Lots of terrible contracts here – Prince Fielder for another six years, Shin Soo Choo for another six years, some big money about to kick in on Elvis Andrus. The Rangers have had terrible luck this year with health but this is a team staring into the barrels of some serious financial pain anyway.

So … what does this have to do with the Selig Era?

Well, there were two things that happened during the late 1990s and early 2000s that were unusual. One, of course, was the crazy proliferation of home runs. But the second was the way players aged. For a long time before the 1994 strike, players tended to age at more or less the same rate. There are countless ways to quantify this – I did a simple spreadsheet looking at players with 3.0 WAR or better. A player with 3.0 WAR is a good player (but not necessarily a great one) and there are usually 25 to 30 of them in any given season, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less.

For decades before the late 1990s, about 72% of those good 3.0 players were younger than 30. Almost all the rest were between 30 and 34. Very few were older than 35 –  from 1972-1997 only 16 of the 594 players with 3.0 WAR were 35 or older. This seemed the natural aging pattern of players.

Here, for your information, is an incomplete list of Hall of Famers and all-time greats who never had even a 3.0 WAR season after age 35: Rickey Henderson, Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, Cal Ripken, Johnny Bench, Robbie Alomar and Yogi Berra.

It changed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1998, for instant, HALF the 3.0 WAR players were 30 or older. It was similar in the the surrounding years. If you include all the years from 1996 to 2004, more than 40% of all the 3.0 WAR players were at least 30 years old.

Beyond that, we suddenly started seeing 35-year olds performing at very high levels. People will immediately say that this was because of the popularization of PED use, and that was certainly a factor. It’s also possible there were other factors – smaller strike zones, smaller parks, better bats, many others. But whatever the reasons, there were a few years there where the idea of a player performing well until his mid-to-late 30s suddenly seemed reasonable.

My guess is that this seemingly reasonable conclusion that baseball players had started to beat the aging process was, in fact, quite unreasonable and it is probably the biggest factor in these massive, sprawling and utterly doomed long-term contracts. Teams started trying to lock up player’s last year for huge dough. Best I can tell, there are 22 players who are signed for big money for at least five seasons after this one. They are:

Atlanta: Freddie Freeman.

Boston: Dustin Pedroia.

Cincinnati: Shin-Soo Choo; Joey Votto.

Colorado: Troy Tulowitzki.

Detroit: Justin Verlander; Miguel Cabrera.

Los Angeles Angels: Albert Pujols; Mike Trout.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp; Clayton Kershaw.

Milwaukee: Ryan Braun.

New York Mets: David Wright.

New York Yankees: Jacoby Ellsbury; Masahiro Tanaka.

San Francisco: Buster Posey.

Seattle: Robinson Cano; Felix Hernandez.

Texas: Elvis Andrus; Prince Fielder.

Washington: Ryan Zimmerman.

How many of those contracts would you want? Before you answer, consider that these are mostly newer contracts – we don’t have any perspective on them yet. But we do have perspective on the LAST batch of big-money contracts – here are the big money contracts running out the next three years: Vernon Wells; Alfonso Soriano; Cliff Lee; C.C. Sabathia; Matt Holliday; Ryan Howard; Mark Teixeira; Josh Hamilton, Jayson Werth; Matt Cain; Carl Crawford; Alex Rodriguez; Jose Reyes.

How many of THOSE contracts would you want?

Baseball owners’ and GM’s madness for big money contracts to aging players has, in its own way, evened the game more than anything else Selig or any other commissioner has done. The Yankees stopped developing their own players and bought their way into a pit. The Red Sox had a couple of only moderate seasons, went on a shopping spree, and bought their way to their two worst seasons in the last half century or so. The Phillies spent a crazy fortune in a hopelessly misguided effort to keep a good team together well past its expiration date.

Even the high-spending teams that are doing well this year – the Angels and Dodgers in particular – are basically tiptoeing around some calamitous contracts.

There’s a great line in The Office where the HR representative Toby – who knows that the boss Michael despises him – finds himself stuck in the back with the impossibly annoying Kelly and Ryan, who spend all hours fighting and making up and fighting more. “I don’t think Michael meant to punish me by putting me here with them,” he said. “But if he did – genius.”

That’s what I see here too. I don’t think Bud Selig meant to even up the game by getting the big teams to wasted their huge money advantages on old and rapidly declining players. But hey, if he did – genius.

Hey, Rube: Phillies pay dearly for Amaro’s misguided loyalty

Ruben Amaro Jr.,

Some years ago, I named particularly terrible baseball contracts “Ricciardis” after former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, who seemed particularly skilled at giving them out. However, in retrospect, I may have been unduly harsh toward Ricciardi. What Ruben Amaro has done in Philadelphia deserves its own place in the Bad Contract Hall of Fame.

Now, let’s make one thing clear: EVERY long, break-the-bank contract is terrible. Every single one.  Well, the 10-year Derek Jeter contract signed back in 2001 worked out well. So every generation or so there will be an exception.

But of the 10 richest contract going in baseball today, the only ones that don’t already look like a complete disasters are the ones that have not had the TIME to become complete disasters. They have either just started or, improbably, will not start for a couple more years.

Don’t believe me: Look.

1. Alex Rodriguez — $275 million from 2008-17

— Disaster doesn’t begin to cover it.

2. Miguel Cabrera — $248 million from 2016-23

— This time bomb is the one that doesn’t start for two years.

3. Albert Pujols — $240 million from 2012-21

— Ugh, there are still SEVEN YEARS on this after this season?

4. Robinson Cano — $240 million from 2014-23

— Fine player. Power already down. Nine more years to go.

[MORE: Phillies set high trade price for Hamels  |  Byrd nurses foot injury]

5. Joey Votto — $225 million from 2014-23

— There are not many bigger Votto fans out there than me but, um, yeah 44 homers the last three years, fall-off-the-cliff decline this year, injuries, and nine more years. The panic button isn’t far away.

6. Clayton Kershaw, $215 million, 2014-20

— Just beginning. He’s the modern day Koufax, and he’s much younger (26) than most beginning these huge contracts. Then, it might be worth remembering that Koufax retired at 30. Always scary with pitchers (see Verlander, Justin).

7. Prince Fielder, $214 million, 2012-20

— Um … help?

8. Joe Mauer, $184 million, 2011-18

— Began the contract as a Gold Glove catcher who won three batting titles and began showing signs of power. Now, he’s an oft-injured first baseman with two home runs. This game does not respect its elders.

9. Mark Teixeira, $180 million (2009-16)

— Well, there are only two years left.

10. Justin Verlander, $180 million (2013-19)

— This one looked like one of the safer bets; Verlander was widely viewed as the best right-handed pitcher in baseball. But then, almost overnight, he lost a bunch off his fastball and lost the feel for his change-up and suddenly this looks like a very, very long deal.

The only deals on that list you would even CONSIDER taking on now are the Kershaw deal, which just started, maybe the Cano deal, which just started, and the Miggy deal, which doesn’t begin for two years. Those haven’t gone kaboom yet. I’m pretty sure in two years or three years, all of these deals (with the possible exception of Kershaw) will already have revealed themselves are fiascos.

You will note that none of these deals are Phillies deals … Amaro’s fiascos are more subtle.

In 2007 and ’08, the Phillies reached the playoffs in large part because the New York Mets collapsed down the stretch. The ’07 collapse is more famous — the Mets blew a seven game lead with 17 games to play — but 2008 wasn’t far off. The Mets had a 3 1/2-game lead with 17 games to play, won just seven of those last 17, and a hot Phillies team breezed by. That Phillies team was so hot, it went on to win the World Series.

The 2009 Phillies led the league in runs and went back to the World Series, where they lost to the Yankees. The 2010 Phillies added Roy Halladay and won 97 games. The 2011 Phillies were the probably the best of the bunch, a 102-game winner with an awe-inspiring rotation of Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. They got knocked out in the playoffs, largely because their once-potent lineup couldn’t score in the end.

Still, that’s a five-year span of goodness — a little luck, some big hitting, some great pitching. That was a superb baseball team. And it was a fun baseball renaissance in Philadelphia. A huge amount of credit for this must to go Amaro. He was involved as an assistant GM to Ed Wade and Pat Gillick when the team was being built. Then he became GM and he wheeled, he dealed, he signed, he gambled, he borrowed from the future to live in the moment. And, as happens so often, he was utterly unprepared for when the check came due.

The best comparison for this I can give involves the Kansas City Chiefs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That really was a great team. Between 1966 and ’71, the Chiefs played in two Super Bowls and won one of them. They were probably the best team in 1971, too, but they were knocked out of the playoffs on Christmas Day by Don Shula’s Dolphins in one of the greatest games ever played. That was a team loaded with Hall of Famers and various other greats — Len Dawson, Buck Buchanan, Wilie Lanier, Bobby Bell, Emmitt Thomas, Otis Taylor, Jan Stenerud and so on — and coached by a Hall of Famer, Hank Stram.

And Stram wanted to, in those defining words of John Keats or John Cougar Mellencamp (can’t remember which): Hold on to 16 as long as he could. He was deeply loyal to that core group of players. Loyalty can be a wonderful trait. Unfortunately, in sports and in “Game of Thrones,” loyalty can be crushing. In the end, the Chiefs seemed to instantly age like the guy who drank from the wrong goblet in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Hank Stram got booted, the Chiefs went into a death spin that was so bad there was even some talk of moving the Chiefs out of Kansas City.

Nobody’s moving the Phillies — they have to be the most depressing team in baseball right now, but they’re still on pace to draw 2 or 2.5 million people. Philadelphia is a good baseball town. Still, this isn’t good. The Phillies are awful. And the Phillies are so overloaded with bad contracts that it’s hard to see how exactly they will stop being awful anytime soon.

[CSN Philly: Hamels thrives despite rampant trade rumors  |  Sandberg praises lefty ace]

Here, according to the invaluable Cot’s Baseball Contracts page, are the players ALREADY on the Phillies 2015 payroll. We’ll deal with them individually in a moment.

  • Ryan Howard: $25 million (again in 2016, $10 million buyout in 2017)
  • Cliff Lee: $25 million (and 27.5 million or $12.5 million buyout in 2016)
  • Cole Hamels: $22.5 million (and three more years, plus $20 million club option or $6 million buyout in 2019)
  • Jonathan Papelbon: $13 million (and $13 million vesting option)
  • A.J. Burnett: $15 million mutual option or $7.5 million player option
  • Chase Utley: $10 million (plus $15 million vesting options in 2016-18)
  • Carlos Ruiz: $8.5 million (again in 2016, plus club option in 2017)
  • Marlon Byrd: $8 million
  • Miguel Gonzalez: $3.7 million
  • That is about $128 million, if you are scoring at home, and it is for nine players. Six of the nine will be older than 35. Two are in their early 30s. The only one younger than 30 is Gonzalez, and he’s a reliever in Class AA.

The Howard contract was the one that should have snapped Amaro out of whatever loyalty spell he was under. The second he offered that catastrophe of a deal, baseball writers all over the country wrote in all capital letters: “ARE THE PHILLIES OUT OF THEIR MINDS?” There was no other question.

This was way back in 2010, and it was utterly inexplicable — a $125 million deal that would not even begin for two years for a declining slugger? I believe it is the most inexplicable bad contract ever handed out. Sure, you could argue for other terrible that were more expensive and harmful — this Pujols deal could end up setting the standard — and there have been many smaller deals that are hard to explain, like the Twins giving Ricky Nolasco a four-year, $50 million deal.

But combine the situation (Howard still had TWO YEARS left on his deal), the age (he turned 32 before the contract even began) and an honest assessment of the player (a power hitter who couldn’t run, was a liability at first base, couldn’t hit lefties and was unlikely to age well) and I think you are talking about the most inexcusably bad contract in baseball history.

Then again … it was a loyalty contract. Howard was such an integral part of the Phillies rise, such an unexpected joy when, in his first full year, he hit 58 homers and led the league with 383 total bases. The Phillies wanted to keep him as a Philadelphia sports hero. Noble cause. It blinded them to the obvious: Howard’s best days were behind him.

Lee and Hamels are the leftovers from Amaro’s chase for a legendary pitching staff … that dream lasted just one year. That really was magical in 2011 when Halladay (2nd), Lee (3rd) and Hamels (5th) all finished Top 5 in the Cy Young voting.

In 2012, Halladay got hurt and lost his groove. Lee and Hamels pitched well enough to make the Phillies a .500 team but that was all they could really do. Last year, Lee again pitched well, Hamels struggled early and then pitched very well his last 16 starts of the season. Anyway, the remnants of that dream pitching staff finished 14th in the National League in runs allowed and the team was lousy.

This year, the Phillies are desperately trying to dump Lee, who is 35 and has made only 12 starts. And they even talk about trading Hamels, though, according to Jon Heyman’s sources, they “want the world.” I’m not sure who is giving “the world” for a soon-to-be 31-year-old pitcher with $100 million left on his contract even if he is pitching very well this year.

Papelbon? That never made sense. He has pitched well as far as that goes, but there’s little more depressing or superfluous than an expensive closer on a bad team. The Burnett signing was pure desperation and it was destined for regret as soon as the ink dried.

And so on. Ruiz is a solid catcher who has had trouble staying healthy, Utley is a once-great player who is still at it after horrible injuries, Byrd is a traveling bat who can fill a spot in the lineup. All three have some value. To have $27 million invested in them is a lesson in money mismanagement. Then again, take all nine of these player together and they make almost $50 million more dollars than the entire Oakland Athletics roster — this without a shortstop, center fielder, third baseman, lead-off hitter or much of anything else.

Amaro wanted to hold on. It’s a natural instinct. And it’s a destructive one. It never fails to amaze how obtuse Major League general managers can be about things seemingly as obvious as aging.  Now, the Phillies are terrible, they are old, they have not developed a useful young player for themselves in about a decade, and Baseball America has ranked their minor league system 22nd, 23rd and 27th the last three years.

Rumors linger that they are prepared to do drastic things, like release Ryan Howard with $60 million left on the bill if they can’t trade him (which, I suspect, they can’t). Well, desperate measures might be the only hope. I could be wrong, but I can’t see anyone giving up real prospects for Hamels unless the Phillies eat a huge part of that salary. Beyond that, there really aren’t many moves left on the board. This is one of the harsh truth of baseball. It’s very hard to build a winner. It’s even harder to build a second winner after your first one grows old.



Where have all the superstar left-handed hitters gone?

Robinson Cano

Last night’s Home Run Derby included just one left-handed hitter (Justin Morneau) among the eight contestants and tonight’s All-Star game will feature only two left-handed hitters (Chase Utley, Robinson Cano) among the 18 starters.

So where did all of the star-caliber left-handed and switch-hitters go, exactly?

Looking back to last year, the All-Star game starting lineups featured left-handed bats Cano, Chris Davis, David Ortiz, Joe Mauer, Carlos Beltran, Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez, and Bryce Harper. Injuries knocked most of those guys out of consideration this season.

Going back two years, the All-Star game starting lineups in 2012 featured left-handed hitters Cano, Gonzalez, Ortiz, Votto, Beltran, Josh Hamilton, Prince Fielder, Pablo Sandoval, Melky Cabrera, Rafael Furcal, and Curtis Granderson.

In other words, yeah, this season is a whole lot different.

Of course, it’s worth noting that this year’s All-Star game reserves include quite a few left-handed bats in Victor Martinez, Charlie Blackmon, Matt Carpenter, Freddie Freeman, Dee Gordon, Miguel Montero, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rizzo, Erick Aybar, Michael Brantley, Brandon Moss, Kyle Seager. And switch-hitting Orioles catcher Matt Wieters was chosen as a starter, but won’t be playing due to an injury.

So there are plenty of left-handed-hitting All-Stars, just not many left-handed-hitting superstars, or at least not many left-handed-hitting superstars who’ve been both healthy and at the top of their respective games this season.

Who are some young left-handed and switch-hitters capable of emerging as perennial All-Star starters? Bryce Harper stands out, certainly, but beyond that there aren’t many 25-and-under left-handed hitters currently in the big leagues who strike me as sure-fire future superstars. Guys like Dickerson, Freeman, Rizzo, Lonnie Chisenhall, Matt Adams, Billy Hamilton, Christian Yelich, Jason Heyward, Kolten Wong, Eric Hosmer, Rougned Odor, Oswaldo Arcia, Jon Singleton, and Jackie Bradley Jr. certainly have big-time potential, but who knows?

It really does seem like we’re in a bit of a lull in terms of superstar left-handed hitters and that might continue for a while until a few prospects like Oscar Taveras, Gregory Polanco, Francisco Lindor, and Joey Gallo start taking over and/or former MVPs and MVP candidates like Votto, Mauer, Gonzalez, and Fielder get back on track.

MLB All-Star Game’s continued irrelevance could be saved by going international

84th MLB All-Star Game

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – You might not be old enough to remember this, but Battle of Network Stars used to be a thing. Every now and again, a bunch of television “stars” – let’s just put “stars” in quotations because it wasn’t like Johnny Carson was out there – would gather together in some fairly exotic location like Hawaii and compete in various “sporting” events.

Yeah, we need to put “sporting” in quotations too because while they did have some actual sports in there like swimming and cycling, they also had pseudo-sports like tug of war and an obstacle course and so on.

It was entertaining at the time, partly because we were so starved for something resembling sports on television that we would watch anything, and partly because Howard Cosell was the announcer, and Cosell was incapable of lowering the volume or intensity for trivial competitions. With Cosell, everything was at least as important as the Super Bowl or the seventh game of the World Series. So you would hear him shout things like, “One thing you have to say about Patrick Duffy is that he’s a COMPETITOR!” or “Robert Wagner doesn’t know the MEANING of the word quit!” Sometimes it seemed Cosell got the irony. And sometimes, it seemed, he did not.

Point is that we as a country used to love stuff like that. Superstars competitions. Battle of the Network Stars. Battle of the Sexes. Match races. All-Star Games galore. You know, every year an all-star team of college football players would face against the Super Bowl champion. It is a very funny thing to see a young person discover THAT for the first time. Their faces go pale, and their eyes widen, and they sputter, “They … they … they … DID WHAT?” There are so many baffling things about the old College All-Star exhibition – injury risks for young players, injury risks for old players, absurdity of a Super Bowl team actually playing a bunch of college kids – that they don’t know where to begin.

But we can begin here: We don’t care about pointless games now. We just don’t. And the range of pointlessness has expanded – we don’t care like we did about horse races that are not the Kentucky Derby, track events that are not the Olympics, boxing matches that are not for some sort of championship. We’ve replaced all of that in the American psyche with stuff at least tangentially connected with sports we DO care about – stuff like the NFL Draft and recruiting and free agency and those viral stories of the day. We’d rather talk and tweet and text and argue about where LeBron James will sign or what nutty thing Johnny Manziel will do next than watch sporting events that don’t count.

And that brings us, yet again, to the All-Star Game.

Well, every single year we write about how much the All-Star Game has lost. Last year, about 11 million people watched – one-third of the audience from 1982, one-half of the audience from 1994, thirty-one percent down from five years ago. But perhaps the most sobering fact was reported by Sports Business Journal: The average age of the All-Star Game viewer was 53. That would be a five followed by a three.
Whenever I am in the younger demographic of a television audience, you have real problems.

Well, the All-Star Game just doesn’t make sense anymore. It made sense when few baseball games were on television and the opportunity to see the stars play was magical. It made sense when the American and National Leagues were truly separate – before interleague play, before free agency, before easy travel between the leagues, before teams switched leagues – and so the only time you might see Johnny Bench face Jim Palmer was in the World Series or All-Star Game. It made sense when we CARED about meaningless games just for the enjoyment of the moment.

All that stuff is gone. Bud Selig’s rather desperate effort to attach meaning to the game by having it determine World Series homefield advantage hasn’t added anything at all, largely because it doesn’t matter to anyone now. It won’t matter to anyone for months, and even then it will only matter to fans of teams actually in the World Series. And for teams in the World Series, it will seem impossibly stupid to have homefield advantage determined by some single in the eighth inning by an All-Star pinch-hitter off an All-Star middle reliever.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about it: What can be done to make the All-Star Game matter again? It’s still an amazing opportunity for baseball – the All-Star Game still has one of the best stages in sports. It’s a Tuesday night in July when NOTHING ELSE is going on. And, weirdly enough, I started thinking about lessons the All-Star Game can take from the Home Run Derby.

It’s weird because: I very much dislike the Home Run Derby. Almost everyone I know does. It’s a terrible event live. It’s a terrible event on television, viewed through the prism of Chris Berman shouting “back-back-back.” The Derby is repetitive and dull and generally annoying.
BUT … it does something the All-Star Game does not. It sticks in the mind. I was thinking about the Home Run Derby the last decade or so and found, to my utter shock, that memories flooded back. I immediately remembered Josh Hamilton’s home run barrage as he was completing a comeback that blew the mind – that was inspiring. Bobby Abreu hit a billion homers one year, that was pretty amazing. Ryan Howard … Prince Fielder … Vlad Guerrero … I remember these moments pretty vividly. I remember Robinson Cano winning with his dad pitching. I remember Robinson Cano flailing helplessly as Kansas City fans booed him for leaving hometown hero Billy Butler off the Derby team.

Then, I was thinking about All-Star Game memories from the last decade: I came up completely empty. I could not think of a single one – and I’ve BEEN to almost every All-Star Game in the last decade. The last vivid memory I have from an All-Star Game was the 2002 tie game calamity, more than a decade ago. And I’ve BEEN to the All-Star Games. Before that, I remember them stopping the game in the middle to honor Cal Ripken.

So why is the Derby more memorable to me (and the numerous others I asked) than the All-Star Game? I think it’s simply this: It’s completely different. The All-Star Game is just another game, one of 3,000 or so that will be played this year if you count spring training and the postseason. Yes, it has the best players (or some reasonable facsimile), and yes it has great history with Ted Williams’ game-winner and Bo Jackson’s bomb to center and Pedro Martinez’s two thrilling innings of strikeouts and whatever. But, in the end, it’s a meaningless game. And we don’t have any time for such things.

The Home Run Derby, for all its many flaws, is DIFFERENT. Same thing with the dunk contest, which is better than the NBA All-Star Game. It acknowledges that people have changed, that it isn’t enough to just get together a few familiar stars and have them play a game for no real purpose. We don’t watch sports like that anymore.

So, it’s really simple: Baseball can keep playing the All-Star Game as is, and fewer people will watch every year. Or they can learn from their own history and figure out a way to make the game memorable again.

* * *

OK, since you asked, here’s what I would do to make the All-Star Game matter again: I would put together one Major League Baseball All-Star Team and have them play a game against a Japanese League All-Star team.

Yes, of course there would be some logistical concerns. But there are so many good things about this game that I don’t even feel like there’s a need to sell it … but here are just three:

1. It would bring back some real meaning to the game. The thing about the old All-Star Game was that players used to feel some sense of pride for the league they played. The National League was older and more established, the American League was the upstart. Then the National League was much more active in integration, while the American League moved slowly. Then the National League won a bunch in a row. And so on. Now, nobody CARES what league they play in. Heck, the Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers happily swapped leagues.

But if you had MLB against Japan … you better believe players would care.

2. The Japanese Leagues are obviously much, much better than people generally seem to believe in America. It’s obvious because in recent years players like Ichiro, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Koji Uehara and so on have become mega-stars in the big leagues. It would be so good for baseball to get the leagues closer together.

3. The All-Star Game would become a world-wide event in a way that it is not now. Baseball does not celebrate its worldliness as much as it should. There are several different languages spoken in every clubhouse. The best players bring new cultures and new styles into the sport. It’s funny; baseball’s championship has been called the World Series for 100 years, but in many ways the world was not invited. I think you begin by bringing in a Japanese All-Star Team, but over time you could add players from Korea and China and Latin American countries. Make it the World All-Star Game.

Anyway, it’s just one idea.