I may have mentioned this: I am on seven-day baseball trip. The trip began with a cross-country flight Los Angeles (where I spent a little time with Vin Scully). Then I caught a red-eye to New York (in time for Jeter’s 3,000), jumped on a plane to Kansas City (where Bill James and I watched Justin Verlander pitch), hopped on a plane to Phoenix for All-Star festivities (yes, I do jump and hop on planes) and I’m now on a plane heading East for my final day, a pilgrimage to Cooperstown. This odyssey, I am assured by editors, will lead to a well-crafted essay about baseball in 2011. It’s not impossible, I suppose. At the moment, though, the only working thought humming in my mind is “BALLOOMOBA!” I am considering that for the lede.
Being around the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game the last couple of days did not add much clarity to my story. Tuesday was the first time in my life that I watched the All-Star Game and wondered why they play it. This is not to say the All-Star Game was terrible. It wasn’t terrible. There were some great baseball players performing, and I’m in love with this game, so it’s still a joy for me to watch Roy Halladay induce ground balls. It’s still a joy for me to use the verb “induce” when talking about pitchers and grounders. It’s still a joy for me to see Prince Fielder uncork into that ferocious swing, to see Jay Bruce show off his arm, to see Jose Bautista take a big turn at first base, to watch Jair Jurrjens throw. Was the game exciting? No. Was it meaningful? No. Did it have some great scenes? Absolutely.
But here was the strange part for me … and I’m not saying that anyone else in America felt this way: The homefield advantage part of the All-Star Game actually make the game LESS enjoyable for me. A lot less.
That was unexpected. I had never minded before. My feeling about the All-Star Game determining homefield advantage in the World Series has always been this: It’s incredibly stupid. But the old system — where World Series homefield advantage was simply alternated between leagues — was also incredibly stupid. So, it didn’t bother me. If baseball fans accepted an alternating system for so many years anyway, then I figured there was no reason not to try something gimmicky to add a little spice to the All-Star Game. Hey, why not?
There are, best I can see, two big reasons why not. One: Replacing one dumb idea with an equally dumb idea is not, as I long thought, a neutral move. Let’s say that for many years you chose your family doctor by flipping a coin. And then one day you consciously and publicly change to a convoluted doctor-choosing-system involving the number of blue cars you see on the way home,, the pitch of bark that the neighbors dog makes and the amount of riboflavin in your morning’s cereal. Well, you are not in the same place in life.You are going backward. The new idea might not be any less logical than the old. But the new idea is new, so it is judged against possibilities rather than against history.
Two: nobody really KNEW about the old dumb system. Yes, every so often there would be outraged columns about how homefield advantage in the World Series is way too important to be alternated each year. But mostly there weren’t any columns. It was, like most illogical traditions, simply a part of every day life. And so: Most people hardly noticed.
“Why do the Red Sox have homefield advantage when the Reds had a much better record?”
“Well, it’s an odd-year, so the American League has homefield advantage this year.”
“That seems kind of a stupid way do it.”
“Yeah. Hey, what kind of beer do we have in the cooler?”
But now, there’s no ignoring the system. It has been trumpeted. It has been advertised. This time it counts! Even moderate baseball fans know exactly why the National League will have home-field advantage in the 2011 World Series. And it is largely because Prince Fielder hit a three-run home run off C.J. Wilson, who was pitching for the American League because Jered Weaver was on some sort of goofy first-game-of-spring-training pitch count (he went one inning) and because Justin Verlander, C.C. Sabathia, Josh Beckett, James Shields and Dan Haren were unavailable. Jordan Walden relieved C.J. Wilson the next inning. Jordan Walden gave up a run.
The game really turned for me when American League manager Ron Washington pulled Weaver after one inning. I guess he did this on request of Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who wants to pitch Weaver on Saturday. I understand. Everybody understands. The All-Star Game is an afterthought. How could it be anything else? Why should it be anything else? But that’s the problem: Baseball keeps trying to MAKE IT be something else, and so I was ANNOYED when Weaver came out of the game, I was irritated, I was disgusted. And I felt that way often during the game. It was a throughly unfulfilling experience for me, sort of like watching a Vegas magic show except the the results of the tricks somehow determine my tax bracket.
The fairest way to determine homefield advantage, it seems to me, is to give it to the team with the better record. When I tweeted this, I was barraged with return tweets about how that would not be fair either because teams don’t play the same schedule and one league is often markedly weaker than the other and so on. This to me seems to miss the point. Of course it’s not perfectly fair — nothing on this earth is perfectly fair except for the slice-and-choose method of dividing pie*.
*One person slices the pie, the other gets to choose which piece she wants, That — along with 90 feet between bases, grilled corn on the cob, Thunder Road and “the sea was angry that day my friends” Seinfeld — are the closest man has come to perfection.
But we can overlook these small flaws of unfairness because … we already do. After all, the best teams from the lousier league already make the playoffs. The pennant winner still goes to the World Series. That pennant winner still gets seven games to win a championship. Is it “fair” that some years there might be a handful of teams in the American League better than any in the National and vice versa? No, it’s not “fair” at the highest level of the word. But that doesn’t matter. They don’t play baseball inside incubators. There’s a great legal term — De minimis non curat lex — which loosely translates to mean: “The law does not concern itself with trivial matters.” Baseball should not concern itself with the minuscule imperfections in the “best record gets homefield advantage” plan. Everyone would buy in.
Now: There are people in and around baseball who say there are logistical issues with the “best record” plan — something to do with travel and not knowing where games will be played in advance and hotel availability and so on. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. It doesn’t really sound true — we don’t know where the games will be played until the playoff series end anyway — but that’s fine. I don’t really care if they go with the best-record plan or not. I just want them to stop tying it to the All-Star Game. Because that’s just actively inane. Tie it to interleague play if you want. Tie it to the previous year’s champion. Heck, go back to the alternating system for all I care.
But give us our nice, meaningless All-Star Game back. Give us something with clarity. And if the players can’t muster enough pride to show up and try to win*, well, there’s nothing you can do to change it.
*And for crying out loud, TV announcers, I’m not qualified to tell you how to do your jobs, but PLEASE STOP TELLING ME HOW MUCH INTENSITY THERE IS OUT THERE. Just stop it. Stop telling me they want to win. Stop telling me that they’re really into this. I was out there. I know exactly how much intensity was out there. If you could harness all the intensity from All-Star Weekend and turn it to battery power, it would not start a single Coleco handheld football game.
I wish they would embrace the meaninglessness of it all rather than amplify it. Fix that damned home run derby so that it is more inclusive and more structured (hint: people like brackets) and much shorter. Add a few skills competitions — maybe you could put someone fast at second base, hit a ground ball to right field and see if he can beat it home. Incorporate the Futures Game better (hint: people like drafts and recruiting). Don’t reduce the fans role in the game — INCREASE it. I cannot believe that baseball does not allow hometown fans to choose their representative. Why wouldn’t they do that? A Final Fan vote for every team, let them choose their representative. And then give the managers the power to fill out the team. How is this hard at all?
Quit trying to make the All-Star Game what it isn’t. There is not a single person who watches the game because it’s for World Series homefield advantage. There’s not a single player who shows up for that reason.
Most of all: Stop telling us that the All-Star Game counts. It doesn’t count. That’s important too. Everyone tries to romanticize the past, but the All-Star Game has NEVER counted. Pete Rose did not run over Ray Fosse because the game mattered more then. Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse because he’s a jerk.*
*And I LIKE the guy.