Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Michael Young Helps MLB Avoid its Worst Nightmare: Another All-Star Game Tie

Michael Young's sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 15th inning not only gave the American League a 4-3 win over the National League in the All-Star Game but it averted the potential of yet another major embarrassment for Major League Baseball and Commissioner Bud Selig. The abominable 11 inning, 7-7 tie in the 2002 All-Star Game was bad enough but if this contest resulted in a tie or turned into a farce with position players pitching it would have been yet another black eye for a sport that has seen plenty of them during Selig's reign. Ever since the 2002 fiasco, the All-Star Game has decided home field advantage in the World Series, so apparently this time around the teams would have stayed on the field until some position player blew out his arm trying to pitch.

J.D. Drew went 2-4 with a two run home run, a walk and a stolen base to claim MVP honors and the relief on Selig's face was palpable when he awarded Drew the MVP trophy. The game obviously did not have too many offensive highlights and, frankly, the first six innings were pretty boring. The only truly memorable plays during that time were a solo home run in the fifth inning by Matt Holliday and a great throw by Ichiro Suzuki to gun down Albert Pujols at second base, though replays indicated that Pujols probably beat the tag; still, it is amazing that a small guy like Ichiro has such a howitzer for an arm and Fox analyst Tim McCarver said that Ichiro is the best defensive right fielder he has seen since the legendary Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.

While the early going was not exciting, things heated up in the seventh inning when Drew's two run shot tied the score and then the latter innings of this game featured numerous tremendous defensive plays by both teams, including several gems by Miguel Tejada and a number of bang bang plays at home plate that kept the score tied.

ESPN's Jayson Stark notes that a staggering number of records were set or tied in this All-Star Game, including, "Longest game ever (290 minutes). Most runners left on base ever (28). Most players in a box score ever (63). Most pitchers in an All-Star box score ever (23). Even most strikeouts ever (34)." The 15 innings tied a record set in 1967 and you can also add to the list of records the three errors committed by National League second baseman Dan Uggla, who also struck out three times and grounded into a double-play in what Stark aptly described as perhaps the worst All-Star performance ever.

This extra innings marathon would have been a lot more thrilling to watch if not for the dark cloud that hung over the last few innings: the very real possibility that one or both of the managers would run out of pitchers. Based on some of the interviews conducted after the game, it sounds like there was some kind of mandate from Selig that the game must have a decisive outcome no matter what, which could potentially have led to home field advantage in the World Series being decided with a position player on the mound. The only thing worse than that would be a position player--a franchise player for some team--blowing out his arm while pitching in an exhibition game.

The reason why this kind of issue never came up until recent years is that in the "good old days" the starting All-Stars played longer and there was an understanding that not every single player would get on the field if the game only went nine innings. Now, by trying to get the best of all worlds MLB annually opens up the possibility of living out a nightmare scenario: the game "counts" yet the managers try to get every player on the field (except for a few pitchers who are on the rosters but whose regular teams don't want them to pitch). If the game goes nine innings then everyone is happy but if it goes extra innings instead of celebrating baseball everyone is suddenly focused mainly on the possibility of the game ending in a tie or a farce with All-Stars playing out of position.

The other problem with the way that the All-Star Game is run is that a terrible strain is being placed on pitchers who have to warm up, then sit down, then warm up, then sit down, then go into the game. Apparently, Brad Lidge had thrown upwards of 100 warmup pitches in a two hour period before he entered the game for the National League in the 15th inning and got saddled with the loss.

The solution is simple: the starting pitchers for each team should go at least five innings, unless of course one of them is getting shelled and needs to come out sooner. Then a relief pitcher should come in for an inning or two and that process should be repeated until the end of the game. That way, guys are not repeatedly warming up and then sitting down, because they will know exactly when they are going in the game. Just being selected to the All-Star team is an honor and it is not practical to get every single player in the game. The fact is, the players who the fans voted in should get the lion's share of the innings anyway.

No one had to tell the players in the 1970s and 1980s that the All-Star Game "counted"; back then, the players felt tremendous pride in trying to win to assert the superiority of their league and that is another reason that starters (position players as well as pitchers) used to play more innings than they do now. If the game really "counts" then it should be managed more like a real game. Pete Rose ran over catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run in the 12th inning of the 1970 All-Star Game precisely because, in Rose's mind, the game "counted"; he often has said that he could not have looked his father in the eye if he had played any other way and that he would have felt like he was cheating the fans if he did not play 100% at all times. Perhaps Rose took things to an extreme in that instance but that also reflects the intensity of the rivalry between the leagues at that time.

Speaking of Rose, I could not help but think of MLB's all-time hits leader during the pregame introductions when 49 Hall of Famers took the field at their old positions and greeted this year's All-Stars. It was great to see so many of the game's legends on the same field at the same time, let alone on the hallowed (and soon to be closed) grounds of Yankee Stadium. I also like that rather than single out one Yankee as the greatest or most worthy of recognition that Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson and Rich "Goose" Gossage each simultaneously threw out ceremonial first pitches. Joe DiMaggio used to demand that he be introduced as the "Greatest living Yankee" but I like the way the Yankees chose to honor multiple stars (and eras) from their storied history.

Rose would surely have been a first ballot Hall of Famer if not for the Hall of Fame changing the rules after MLB banned Rose for life for the gambling that he did while managing the Cincinnati Reds after he retired as a player. In the first 55 years of its existence, the Hall of Fame never had a rule barring someone who is on the banned list from being on the Hall of Fame ballot but in 1991 the Hall hastily implemented such a rule just before Rose would have become eligible to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot. Thus, the Hall of Fame voters never had a chance to decide whether or not to vote him in, so Rose's situation differs completely from that of guys like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds; many people believe that McGwire and Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and thus McGwire has received few Hall of Fame votes and Bonds may also get much less support than he otherwise would have--but McGwire is on the ballot and as things stand now Bonds will be on the ballot as soon as he becomes eligible. Apparently, Rose is the only baseball player in history who MLB has decided is beyond redemption and forgiveness, something that is ironic and sad considering how Josh Hamilton is praised for overcoming his addictions and that the Hall of Fame has already opened its doors to someone who was suspended for one year for consorting with gamblers (Leo Durocher) and a player who was convicted of drug smuggling (Orlando Cepeda).

Rose was selected to the All-Star team 17 times and he started at five different positions (second base, left field, right field, third base and first base). If Rose had been allowed to participate in the pregame ceremony then MLB would have had to clone him in order for him to simultaneously be present at all the spots on the field where he played at an All-Star level. Yes, there are Hall of Famers who made the All-Star team at multiple positions but as far as I know Rose is the only player who started at five different positions in All-Star play.

The ceremony was great but I found myself wondering which position Rose would have represented and how big of an ovation he would have received. He received louder cheers than anyone else when MLB had to begrudgingly include him in a similar ceremony in 1999 when the All-Century Team was chosen. The difference in that case is that corporate sponsor MasterCard insisted on including Rose, a strong indication that MLB's stance regarding Rose is hypocritical and not truly a moral stance based on upholding the integrity of the game: basically, if the price is right then MLB will recognize Rose but otherwise he is ostracized. Rose committed a serious offense and I don't think that he should be allowed to manage again but it is terrible for MLB to act like his honestly achieved playing accomplishments never took place and it will be disgusting if even one PED cheater is inducted in the Hall of Fame, especially if Rose continues to be banned.

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