The All-Star Game once meant something.
OK, so its outcome didn’t decide home-field advantage in the World Series. That new wrinkle was added to give it a purpose beyond showcasing the premier talent in the sport. But the system for selecting those players continues to cheapen the game.
More on that later.
The annual event was once highly anticipated. A game between fierce rivals. A game for bragging rights between the leagues, whose teams never competed against each other until the World Series.
The results of the All-Star Game were once a reflection of that rivalry and the balance of power in baseball, as well as the respective philosophies and styles of play.
The American League used its power and superior level of talent to dominate in the 1930s and 1940s.
The National League proved far more aggressive in signing African-American and Latin players such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Juan Marichal, Roberto Clemente, and Orlando Cepeda in the 1950s and 1960s, helping it to wrest control.
The NL played a more exciting brand of baseball. While American Leaguers moved station to station, their counterparts racked up steals and took extra bases. The result was that the National League won 30 of 36 All-Star Games from 1951 to 1982 (two were played every year from 1959 to 1962).
And fans really cared. When Pete Rose, the one-time Charlie Hustle and current Charlie Gamble, steamrolled Indians catcher Ray Fosse to clinch an NL triumph in the 1970 battle, fans in National League cities pumped their fists. That was National League ball. Aggressive. Willing to take someone out on the base paths, even in a supposedly meaningless exhibition game. Fans in American League cities were appalled and angry.
Times have changed. Aside from the designated hitter, there seems to be no clear distinction between leagues anymore. Interleague play has killed the mystery. The desire of the powers that be to create geographical rivalries and allow fans to witness and players to compete against teams from all of baseball has become more important than maintaining a sense of rivalry between the two leagues.
No problem with that here. My beef with scheduling is the over-emphasis on divisional matchups that prevent fans from watching other league opponents more than once at home.
The issue is fan voting, a popularity contest in which teams strongly promote the selections of their own players at the expense of worthiness. The result this season is that, in a year boasting sensational second base play in the American League, unworthy Royals veteran Omar Infante nearly earned the starting nod. He was batting under .200 when the voting began. His inclusion would have very likely kept Jose Altuve (Astros), Jason Kipnis (Indians), or Brian Dozier (Twins) out.
It wasn’t always like this. The manager of each All-Star team selected the entire squads from 1935 to 1946. The fans were allowed to vote for the eight starting position players beginning in 1947, then those in Cincinnati abused the privilege in 1957, stuffing the ballot box and choosing a Reds player at every spot but first base.
Major League Baseball did the smart thing and removed two Reds from the lineup before discontinuing the fan voting until 1970. But its desire to include the fans in the process and promote the All-Star Game as their game motivated the sport to restore the old method of picking the starters.
Now we have the worst of both worlds. Not only has the rivalry between the leagues disappeared, but the players that have earned the right to start through their performances on the field are subject to the provincial attitudes of individual fan bases. Hardcore baseball fans still fill out their ballots honestly, but the majority cater to their own fandom and the urging of their teams to select at least most of the players wearing the uniforms of the clubs for which they root.
There is a simple solution, one that Major League Baseball could adopt next year and one that the National Football League already has for its albeit meaningless Pro Bowl. That is, make the fan vote only part of the selection process for the starting players. Allow beat writers from the media, as well as players, coaches, and managers also contribute. Every entity would have an equal power split in the choosing of the eight position players. The manager for the AL and NL stars would still select the pitchers and reserves.
Something, after all, needs to change. The rivalry between the leagues? That ship has sailed. The winner boasting home field advantage in the World Series? Good idea—but only if steps are taken to insure that both leagues are represented by the cream of the crop every year.
Otherwise, the All-Star Game can be placed in the same category as the Pro Bowl and NBA All-Star Game and renamed The Irrelevant Bowl.
And that’s too bad. The All-Star Game once earned the nickname The Midsummer Classic.